“We should not look back unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors, and for the purpose of profiting by dearly bought experience.”
~ George Washington
So a new year has begun and many of us are planning for (or maybe just hoping for) big changes in our lives. We’ve set goals to make more money, find more time for family and friends, get more healthy, be more organized… the list goes on and on, doesn’t it? But for many of us, right around April we’ll realize that things are looking pretty much the same as they did last year. And the year before that. And the year before that.
It’s not that we aren’t setting good goals, and it’s not that we’re lazy and just unmotivated. But one of the main things that blocks us from moving forward is that thing that’s supposed to be behind us: the past. Our unconscious mind has carefully recorded every little detail of what has happened to us in the past and uses that information to determine what is possible for us in the future. It’s not a conscious choice. Many of us who have done work in the personal growth arena recognize that our history doesn’t determine our destiny. As that great philosopher Mick Jagger says, “The past is a great place and I don’t want to erase it or regret it, but I don’t want to be its prisoner either.”
Still, your unconscious mind drags this past forward and uses it to filter information, form reactions to new situations, and influence our choices. Because it’s an unconscious process, we don’t even know that it’s happening – until we find ourselves sabotaging our best efforts to meet our goals and create change in our lives.
Here’s how it works: Say as a child you were embarrassed by a teacher when making a presentation to your third grade class. Your unconscious – which is always eager to protect you from harm – makes a note: “Speaking in public is dangerous.” You may have completely forgotten the incident -- but your unconscious never does! So if you decide to do a little public speaking to market your business, your unconscious yells, “Whoa! Not that! It’ll be too painful!” Of course, your unconscious can’t actually yell, so what does it do instead? It makes your palms sweat and your knees shake and might even make you sick to your stomach – whatever it takes to keep you from entering that “dangerous” situation.
The other thing about your past is that it never really happened. Actually, it happened but the memory you have of it has been twisted, colored, and distorted by your belief system. As poet Adrienne Rich put it, “Every journey into the past is complicated by delusions, false memories, false namings of real events.” Have you ever talked to your siblings or childhood friends about incidents in your distant past? Have you noticed that none of you remembers those incidents exactly the same way? Your unconscious doesn’t carry forward a factual accounting of the events in your history. It carries its own interpretations of events and throws them in front of you whenever it perceives you moving into unknown, unsafe territory.
Many of us have learned to gut it out and use sheer will and determination to overcome unconscious barriers build from the past. But there’s an easier way: Rewrite your past. In NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), we call this “reframing.” Basically, it’s giving your unconscious mind a new interpretation of events. If you can remember the incident from the past that has become the barrier, you can actually reframe it. Or you can reframe the experience in the present. Either way, all you need is a state of relaxation, your willingness, and your imagination:
- Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed for 10-15 minutes. Sit or lie down comfortably and begin the process by relaxing your body and taking several deep breaths. Your attitude should be one of curiosity and allowing rather than trying too hard.
- Now gently ask your unconscious if it is okay to have a different experience about the event. If you feel resistance, ask your unconscious why. (Don’t worry about whether you are getting the “right” answer or really communicating with your unconscious. Just play the game.)
- If your unconscious feels that this situation is still “unsafe,” ask it how you can make it safer. Make sure that you resolve whatever issues your unconscious still has before proceeding.
- Now replay the past or present incident as if it’s on a screen in front of you. Without stepping into the situation, watch what is happening. (If there are a series of incidents, choose one that represents them all.)
- Next, step into the screen and feel whatever you were feeling at the time or what you feel when it comes up. (If the incident was very painful, you may want to stay as an observer and simply empathize with the “you” on the screen.)
- Clear the screen. Now re-imagine that same scene but with an entirely different script. This new script should incorporate how you want to feel. For the public speaking example, if you want to feel brave and confident, script the scene so you stand up straight and speak clearly and firmly. Have your audience be rapt with attention, nodding their heads with approval.
- Now step into the scene that you’ve created. Feel how the same event but with this new script. Make the scene brighter, louder, more colorful. Enjoy it for a few moments before you pull yourself out of the screen.
- Watch this newly written scene for a few more moments, letting your unconscious know that this is a healthy way to feel. Thank it for its vigilance in protecting you in the past. Clear the screen.
Depending on the severity of the incident and the reaction you have to it, you may need a few more sessions or to work with a trained NLP practitioner. But for many people, this simple process will alleviate the physiological barriers to the changes you want to make.
As Marianne Williamson reminds us, “Our past is a story existing only in our minds. Look, analyze, understand, and forgive. Then, as quickly as possible, chuck it.” Chuck that old version of the past and enjoy your bright new future!
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About the Author: Matthew B. James, MA, Ph.D., is President of The Empowerment Partnership, where he serves as a master trainer of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), a practical behavioral technology for helping people achieve their desired results in life. Dr. Matt has also immersed himself in Huna, the ancient practices of the Hawaiian islands of forgiveness and meditation for mental health and well-being, and he carries on the lineage of one of the last practicing kahuna. In his most recent book, Find Your Purpose, Master Your Path, Dr. Matt melds the ancient wisdom of Huna with modern psychology to assist us in leading conscious, purpose-driven lives. He contributes regularly to The Huffington Post and Psychology Today blogs. For more information and to receive Dr. Matt's NLP Fast-Track Video eCourse for free, visit www.NLP.com