How to Make Peace With the Past
There are many temptations to organize our life around the experience of earlier trauma. But that may shortchange the future—which starts by our envisioning something better.
By Psychology Today Contributors published May 3, 2022 - last reviewed on July 25, 2022
Confront What You Learned to Avoid
It’s not past experience that keeps people stuck but the habits
developed to cope with it. By Noam Shpancer, Ph.D.
“The past is never gone. It is not even past” wrote William Faulkner. The statement may be truest with regard to past adversity. Negative events echo loudly inside our psychic architecture.
The reason is evolutionary. If a tiger attacked you in the forest, you’d do better, survival-wise, not to forget about it, lest you venture again into the forest unprepared. In addition, our brain has evolved to seek order in the environment—to make sense of things—because we’re less vulnerable if we understand what’s going on. Adverse events disrupt the existing order, introducing an element of chaos and senselessness. Our brain is compelled to return to the site of the trauma to try to “solve the case,” piece together the narrative, and restore order to the world.
Little wonder, then, that people find moving on from past adversity difficult. Or that therapists often seek to help clients deal with current troubles by relating them back to early distress. Attributing current difficulties to past trauma restores order to the narrative, providing a reassuring clarity.
Yet organizing a self-story around past trauma carries risks. For one, such a story may be factually inaccurate. The path from early experience to adult outcome is neither direct nor clear. (If early adversity led you to a habit of drinking, are your current problems caused by early adversity or by drinking?) Specific early experiences cannot readily explain specific current behaviors, and those who experience similar early circumstances are unlikely to share similar symptom profiles in adulthood. Additionally, traumatic experiences happen in context, and the contexts in which they occur are bound to include other risk factors, making it difficult to ascertain the traumatic event’s unique contribution to later outcome.
Moreover, the notion that current troubles are caused by past trauma creates a market for finding trauma in one’s past. We thus risk assigning the trauma label to any upsetting, angering, challenging, or disappointing experience. Stretching the trauma label to cover generic life challenges or trivial negative events amounts to a form of emotional grade inflation, diluting the meaning of the term. If everyone has been traumatized, then the construct of trauma loses its utility in describing meaningful variations in lived experience.
In addition, focusing on trauma in appraising our (or others’) life amounts to framing existence in terms of its brokenness. There’s brokenness to every life. Yet making trauma someone’s defining feature reduces them to their injury. That’s spiritually deflating, psychologically unhelpful, and factually inaccurate. Human beings are more than the sum of their hurts.
Ironically, a trauma-centered narrative itself may make moving on from trauma difficult. Attaching one’s identity to past trauma provides relief by anchoring our sense of self in a coherent narrative amidst the storm of existence. Yet, once the story of “my trauma” becomes the story of “me,” moving on from it may feel like self-negation.
Therefore, moving on from past adversity often requires a shift in how we perceive ourselves. Specifically, we may benefit from shifting our self-focus to our strengths and assets. This is not an act of denial or an excursion into “positive thinking” but a useful and fair correction.
First, the default position for human beings is resilience, not fragility. Our odds of overcoming adversity are generally greater than our odds of succumbing. Second, framing identity in terms of our strengths is psychologically empowering. At the job interview, you talk about your strengths first because anchoring your narrative in your strengths improves the odds that you will be perceived, and
treated, as strong by others. The same is true for self-perception. Finally, as research has demonstrated, acknowledging and building our strengths improves our ability to deal with our areas of weakness; focusing on mental health assets tends to improve mental health outcomes.
In addition, moving on from past adversity often requires us to change how we perceive the adversity itself. The experience of trauma is subjective. What overwhelms one person may not bother another, and what society may commonly construe as an adverse event may not be inherently or uniformly so.
Research shows that our subjective perceptions of events, rather than the events themselves, tend to account for the experience of trauma. As Seth Pollak and Karen Smith note in Perspectives on Psychological Science: “Variability in individuals’ perceptions of events is most likely to account for how adversity ‘gets under the skin,’ affecting long-term neural and behavioral outcomes.”
How you perceive what happened influences how what happened affects you. This is good news because while you can’t change what happened, you can change how you perceive it.
A useful first move is to let go of the misperception—a common feature of trauma-centered narratives—that what caused a problem to emerge in the past is what keeps it going in the present. You may have learned to distrust people because of your troubled childhood
relationship with your unstable parents. Yet your mistrust of people in the present is not maintained by your relationship with your parents.
In general, current difficulties that may have had their origin in past adversity are most commonly maintained in the present by the habit of avoidance, research finds. What’s holding you back now is not your past adversity but the avoidance habits enacted to cope with its aftermath. Such habits, unlike the past experience itself, can be changed. The way forward from trauma is by confronting in the present what your past had taught you to avoid.
Finally, dealing with traumatic memories often means tangling with negative emotions. The blizzard of negative emotions, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, can overwhelm the order of the soul. Managing emotions, however, is a skill that can be mastered. Generally, it involves a three-step process.
First, we must recognize that emotions are always part of our experience, never the whole of it. Your emotions are yours, but they are not you, in the same way that waves are not the ocean.
Second, we need to learn to accept our emotions. Acceptance does not denote agreement or liking. Rather, it is a stance of attentive curiosity. To wit: Listening attentively to someone does not require us to judge them or agree with what they’re saying. Emotional acceptance is listening attentively to oneself.
Third, we need to realize that the information conveyed by our emotions is often distorted or incomplete. The fact that you feel bad does not mean that you are bad or that your situation is bad. Thus, we should not blindly obey our emotions. Rather, we may learn to consult other available sources of data—our capacity for reason, worldly experience, meaningful goals, personal values—and arrive at a considered decision, rather than an emotionally driven one, about the course of action to take.
Moving forward from past adversity does not happen on its own. It requires intentional and persistent effort. It takes a balanced approach that acknowledges difficult past events and circumstances without sanctifying them as the pillars of identity and directs us to acquire the mental health skills needed to appraise accurately, deal successfully with—and ultimately transcend—the legacy of a troubled past.
Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University.
To Heal Is to Feel
Use pain as a guide to what matters and to what can move you forward. By Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D.
Negative events are a fact of life. Because they register powerfully, they have an uncanny ability to overtake our mental machinery. My career as a psychologist has been devoted to understanding the ways that facing pain without knowing how to feel leads people to logical, reasonable—and pathological—practices that our judgmental minds readily recommend but that keep us stuck in the past. I learned some things the way everyone else does.
My Dad was an exploder who used alcohol to keep the lid on, which only made the inevitable explosions more violent and frightening. In early elementary school, I vividly remember watching my Dad ripping the screeching pink-and-cream two-tone Plymouth station wagon out of our driveway in an angry rage and seeing my brother tumble out of the opened tailgate onto the street. I was scared, horrified. But that wasn’t said—I would not have known how. Dominant as they were in our house, emotions were barely mentioned at all.
My Mom was an emotional suppressor whose very pores oozed a sense of dark dread. Even at age 8, I knew it was not rational to talk constantly of germs and to wash your hands until they bled. That made sense only recently when I learned from a relative that my grandmother had committed suicide and my Mom unfairly took the blame. She could not help me then with frightening feelings—she was desperately staying away from her own. I knew that my parents loved me, but in a home wet with anger and dark secrets, I also learned that emotions were … dangerous.
No wonder I had my first panic attack two decades later as a young academic watching a group of professors fight in a way only wild animals and full professors are capable of. Years of emotional rage and neglect had taught my nervous system that emotions were dangerous. But what does one then do with pain?
In my long career as a psychologist studying human nature and the causes of human suffering, I have been struck by the ways people inadvertently impede their own healing. Here are 10 suggestions for alleviating the pain of trauma past.
Don’t Deny Your Pain
When you cut yourself, your body will try to heal—whether you acknowledge your body or not. Psychological wounds are different. You cannot begin psychological healing until you acknowledge and describe your pain—because self-invalidation cuts even deeper. Life will not give you a pass just because you were taught and internalized “Boys don’t cry” or “Wear your big-girl pants.” You can heal only if you feel, and learning how starts with acknowledgement.
When you are hurting, you may want to curl up in a blanket on your couch. Although that’s great for a Sunday afternoon, it’s not a way to live your life. While you close yourself off from the world, life continues without you. When you excessively avoid what is painful, you also avoid what is rich and meaningful.
Observe Your Emotions
Eyes closed, jaws clenched, “powering through” can itself be further traumatizing. Even if you do what is important, you still reinforce that it’s unsafe (or you wouldn’t resist it). Instead, slow down and breathe. Carefully notice your body. Observe and describe—more like watching a sunset or listening to a crying child than doing a math problem. Give your emotions a name. Let your mind and body know that it’s safe for you to see what hasn’t been seen, to feel what hasn’t been felt, and to voice what hasn’t been said.
Move Toward Yourself, Not Away from Pain
Distraction is a two-edged sword. The problem is not the traction, it’s the dis that states, “It’s not OK to be me!” Stop dissing yourself! Find the traction to move toward. Take that hot bath or listen to that cool music because you love it and deserve self-care. Don’t do it as a diss.
Let Pain Be a Guide
Your mind may suggest that you wallow in pain forever—for specialness or to prove how unfair it all is. Don’t take the bait. Pain is not a badge of honor—it’s how we learn what’s important and what needs care and attention. Use pain as a goad and guide. Let it help you get unstuck, then work to correct what is unfair.
Don’t Cling to Feeling “Good”
When we feel good, we may want it to last forever. The instant we cling to these feelings, they begin to fade. Like a bird sitting on your shoulder, the moment you try to grab it, it flies away. Enjoy good feelings while they last but let them go in their own time. Fixed emotions cannot teach.
Show Yourself Some Kindness and Compassion
Minds can be unkind. Seeing the struggle, you start asking, What is wrong with me? and Why is this so hard? You invite yourself into a spiral of judgment and self-blame. When you’re feeling down, don’t add more weight—extend yourself a helping hand. Show yourself kindness when you feel as though you least deserve it.
Take the Time It Takes to Heal
You did what all the articles have told you, but you are still hooked. Don’t rush along! The goal is to gradually learn to let emotions play the proper role in your life. “Healing” means “whole” and learning to be whole cannot be rushed. It needs time and patience. Dare to give that to yourself.
We are willing to take on pain if it’s safe and has a real purpose. In the gym you exercise safely but vigorously, knowing muscle aches are part of creating strength and flexibility. Same here. Follow the steps above and your body and unconscious programming will get the safety message. But the purpose? That’s up to you. To help yourself heal, it is crucial that you see, choose, and embrace your purpose. Without purpose, pain is a meaningless struggle.
Children of emotional neglect believe they need to heal on their own. The nonsense of “don’t burden others” deprives us of the comfort of friends and the exchange of wise guidance. We are the social primates, meant to travel together. Whether it be your family, friends, a therapist, or even an online group, dare to reach out for support and use what you learn to help and support others.
Pain often comes from outside, unbidden. Neglectful mistakes are learned things we do, but that means they can be changed! The work comes from within. Acknowledge your pain, recognize your mind’s needless defenses, and learn how to use feelings to foster a free life full of purpose, love, and meaning. Done in the right way, feeling is healing. n
Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., is the originator of acceptance and commitment therapy and the author of A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.
Creating a New You
A vision of something better underlies the transformation from victim to survivor. By George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.
Bad things sometimes happen to people through no fault of their own. Then what? As Yogi Berra famously said, “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.” There tend to be three types of reaction to adversity. Some people get stuck, paralyzed psychologically. Others act in desperation, seizing on any opportunity to feel safe, although their desperate acts can lead to further problems and victimization. And some people manage to grow in the wake of adversity and trauma, building new lives.
Which path a person winds up on is not a matter of luck. Whatever hand you’ve been dealt, you have a responsibility to make a choice: Move on or wait to be rescued. Believing that your past predicts your future can keep you stuck in it, not even trying for better things ahead. But research reveals that the past is actually a very poor predictor of the future.
There are four concrete steps for creating a new you and a new future.
It starts with a belief. As one survivor of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse told me, “Finding a way to imagine a better life for oneself is the first step in making it happen. Believe you are destined for something better.” Without a vision for the future, there can be no desire for it. Admittedly, having a vision takes courage; we try to protect ourselves against the disappointment of failure. Start with a belief and don’t be shy about expressing it: “I’m destined for something better.”
Next, harness the power of belief by converting it into action. Self-fulfilling prophecy bridges the gap between belief and action. A prediction, whether in thoughts or words, directly or indirectly, causes itself to become true. If you can’t realize your vision, you wind up talking yourself out of the desire.
How does expectation become action? If you think you will fail at something, you are likely to attempt the task with minimal effort, enthusiasm, and tenacity. You are more willing to accept initial rejection or failure. Or worse, you are likely to not attempt to be successful at all.
But if you think you will succeed at something, you are likely to attempt the task with effort, enthusiasm, and tenacity. You are less willing to accept initial rejection or failure, more likely to see setbacks as precursors to the inevitable success! Tenacity helps you reframe setbacks as opportunities to get stronger.
Believing is not enough. You must also act on your belief. Once you choose to act, act tenaciously. “Language is the formative organ of thought,” Wilhelm von Humboldt declared. Thought usually precedes action. Change your language from that of loss to that of growth. Eliminate “I can’t” and “Yes, but” from your vocabulary.
The language of equivocation leads to hesitancy and insecurity, the language of assertiveness to extraordinary effort. When you find yourself using the words or thoughts of negativity, stop and find more constructive words. You may stumble. You may fall. But keep moving.
Taking the first step—even a small one, overcomes inertia. That essentially eliminates the most difficult of hurdles.
Finally, remember that the single best predictor of resilience and growth is a connection to others. Recruit help moving forward. Relentlessly seek someone who has your back and will pick you up whenever you fall. Mentors and coaches help people believe in themselves and supply information that can support your transformation from victim to survivor.
Observe those who possess the qualities you wish to possess. Learn from them. Seek their guidance. See successful others not through the lens of jealousy but as models: “If they can do it, so can I.”
If you want to change your life, you must begin with a belief and harness the power of prophecy. But never forget, the purpose of prophecy is not to predict the future—it’s to create the future.
George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., serves on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University.
Profiles In Courage
Profiles by Hara Estroff Marano
Ryan Novak, 33, The Power of a Promise
“I know what a bad day is,” says Ryan Novak, 33. It’s a day when you’re 9 years old, playing at a friend’s house, and your dad suddenly appears, delivering the news that your mother is never coming home. She has been hit by a drunk driver running a stop sign. Novak “bolted, crying, screaming, terrified,” hoping to escape the unbearable reality. Eventually he stopped and ran back to all he had—his waiting dad.
“I told my dad that I would make Mom proud. It’s a promise that still drives me.” First it drove him to learn to play the saxophone. Then to become a Division I football player. Then, at 21, to own his own business and, eventually, to take it from a small local operation to a national one. Along the way he learned that “promises are fuel for the subconscious, and that is a boost we sometimes need to rise above hardships.” For a while, the day that split his life into before and after brought emptiness. “You think you’re going to wake up from a bad dream and things will be OK. Eventually you realize it is never going to be normal. The loss will be with you forever. You understand that life is fleeting. It forces you to grow up fast.”
Tragedy can keep people from dreaming big—or at all. Fear, anger, and sadness chew up all the bandwidth, trapping them in the past. But Novak found that “being driven by something positive gave me energy to dream again. Keeping big goals in front of me kept me from staring back at the loss.”
In high school, Novak dreamed of making the football team at Syracuse University as a placekicker. His coach taught him that kicking was “like life, more will than skill.” A freshman walk-on, he made the team. He credits the mentorship: “A journey out of darkness needs a guide with a light.”
At college, he dreamed of owning a business and studied entrepreneurship. Throughout high school, he had worked in the local chocolate shop, mopping floors, cleaning dishes. He saw bigger possibilities and told the owner to let him know when he was ready to retire. He never imagined the call would come while he was still in college.
“I wasn’t prepared to be a 21-year-old business owner,” Novak recalls. But two confections made on a stovetop soon became 250 wholesale and retail goodies—the signature one, a chocolate pizza in a peek-through pizza box. “I went to classes, came back to the shop, made chocolate, shipped chocolate, and sometimes slept on the floor.”
It was important for him to finish his degree—one of the promises that have kept his mother “a guiding presence in my life.” She’s just “kind of always there,” ushering him forward.
Brooke Siem, 36, Briefed by Her Body
The cupcakes were flying out the door. At 30, after college and culinary school, chef Brooke Siem had a smash hit with her Prohibition Bakery, turning out tiny alcoholic cupcakes, thousands a day. ”People loved them,” she reports. Then why was she standing at the window of her 30th-floor Manhattan apartment calculating how long it would take her body to hit the ground? She loved owning a business. But endlessly producing the same thing every day was deadening. And her relationship with her business partner was souring. She felt trapped “in a self-created prison,” unable to try anything new because she felt so depleted.
One “unremarkable day” it dawned on her that she shouldn’t be suicidal—she was on antidepressants, and she had been for half her life. At 15, her father had died. She didn’t have an intense reaction. “I thought grieving involved screaming and sobbing—real drama. I didn’t realize that shutting down is a form of grief.” At the same time, she was coping with the loss of her dreams as a ballet dancer. Even professional training couldn’t give her what nature had not—the right body—and her efforts to transform it begat an eating disorder.
After finding her daughter’s diary, which revealed the eating disorder, Siem’s mother—herself quietly grieving while maintaining the family business—insisted that Brooke see a psychologist. The breach of trust that got her there, however, kept her from engaging with the therapist, who advised that she be medicated.
“Adults viewing me as so wounded that I needed medication was a reflection of how I felt in my grief and belief that most of the people in my life were going on as if nothing had happened. I did not understand what it would mean to be given a psychiatric diagnosis and drugs at 15. It seemed as innocuous as taking Advil for a headache.”
Standing at the window, she didn’t know whether she needed a different dose or different drugs—or even who she might be as an unmedicated adult. “I created my whole view of my life through the lens of these drugs.” Scary as it was, the idea took root that she’d never know the answer unless she stopped them entirely. Then an opportunity arose to travel the world for a year on a cooking project, and she didn’t want to lug along a suitcase full of pills.
She sold the business and embarked on a trip to cook with grandmothers all over the world. It restored her love of things culinary. She discovered who she was. But the cost was high—a year of antidepressant withdrawal that started with a racing heart, progressed to visible nodes of blood-vessel inflammation, generated sudden and extreme mood swings—“an earthquake inside me”—and induced thoughts of violence to herself and others.
A family friend in Nevada, a psychologist, reassured her it was all a reaction to stopping the drugs. “OK, this is a real thing that I’m experiencing. I’m going to figure this out on my own,”she said.
It was the best thing she could have done she says, “because when your environment is constantly changing, you don’t get to blame anything on anything but yourself. You are responsible for your entire life. The issues that were occurring were things I had to be the one to fix.” If grief goes unprocessed, she discovered, “it waits for you. Grief waited for me until I was 30.” She used her physical symptoms as a guide to feelings that had long been suppressed.
Lacking “the tools or even the nervous system to deal with them all at once,” she sought help from a spiritual counselor and worked remotely with him. When her throat tightened while discussing certain topics, she recalls, she understood metaphorically what she wasn’t always able to connect to: situations that were suffocating her. Together they focused on ways of relieving the tension. “The biggest thing was, I let myself feel. And I became able to say things out loud associated with the feelings”—the shame, for example, of having an eating disorder.
At 30, Siem had no benchmark for who she was supposed to be. Then she digested 15 years of experiences at once. She is “not especially mathematical,” but she decided to graph her emotional state, every day recording the feelings she experienced and assigning numbers to their intensity.
Tiny intervals of calm became a huge source of optimism. She taught herself how to expand them, to hold onto good sensations. “Then you can start to seek out such experiences. If I had 20 minutes of a break, I forced myself to believe that tomorrow I might have 30 minutes.” Noticing slow upward movement over time softened the despair of the bad days.
Gradually, the tracking of her feelings kept her from being whipsawed by them. By 31, Siem not only knew who she was but was fully in charge of herself. Her memoir of withdrawal, May Cause Side Effects, will be published in the summer.
Howard Rankin, 70, From Revenge to Redemption
No one sets out to be the architect of their own affliction. Certainly not Howard Rankin. A respected resident of Hilton Head, South Carolina, where he had earlier helped to establish one of the country’s first comprehensive wellness centers, he stumbled over a situation he above all—as a practicing psychologist—should have seen coming. The penalty was big, loud, and costly—it swallowed his livelihood, his status, and, for a while, his identity—but his fight to regain his dignity was a redemptive journey that exposed the frailty of our defenses, the gravitational pull of denial, and, ultimately, the power of self-compassion.
Born in London, Rankin trained at the Institute of Psychiatry and took his behavioral orientation to an addiction research unit in the north of England before accepting an invitation to help establish what is now Hilton Head Health and then starting his own practice. He also wrote several books.
In 2005, Rankin took on a client with borderline personality disorder and worked with her for three years before she quit therapy. Over the next four years, Rankin says, she’d stop by occasionally to update him on her progress. “One day in 2012, as she was leaving my office, she hugged and kissed me. I fell into the trap for a couple of days.” A month later, while consulting on a project in Missouri, he got a call from his state’s licensing board announcing that they had received a complaint against him for sexual misconduct.
After a brief hearing in spring 2013, his license was revoked. The case was mishandled, Rankin says, and he became a very angry man, preoccupied with revenge. “Often,” he says, “we can find injustice in how we have been treated. But that doesn’t negate the fact that we have made a big, often stupid, mistake.” The mistake got bigger and stupider when he had to tell his wife that he no longer had a profession or a source of income. “That was the most difficult thing I ever had to do. She was angry, but then she came to understand. She knows who I am.” Her response, he says, anchored him in the midst of turmoil. And if he didn’t know it before, it taught him that hate and love can coexist—she didn’t love him less, she just hated him more.
But before things got better, they got worse. A month after losing his license a newspaper article completed his disgrace. “At least I have my marriage,” Rankin told himself. For a while, that’s all that kept him from “withering under the gravity of shame and humiliation.” Eventually it gave him the courage to examine “how I screwed up.”
After making a grand tour of all the thought processes of self-vindication, Rankin refused to blame anyone but himself, even after having to declare bankruptcy. “By and large human beings are storytellers seeking emotional comfort and the illusion of control. This means that the default setting in these instances is denial.” Nor would he don “the mantle of victimhood. It is a defense that keeps you trapped.” Depression would likely follow.
“The redemptive path is about meaning. As soon as I stopped the revenge fantasies and accepted my responsibility, I was able to move forward and ask myself the key question: What would have to happen for me to feel that I had regained my dignity and purpose?”
Rankin cultivated self-compassion. “Self-esteem is fine, but it can depend upon external factors like success. Self-compassion is internal, recognizing that you are a flawed human being like everyone else, trying to learn from mistakes, and not crucifying yourself.”
These days, Rankin makes a living coaching and writing, usually as a ghostwriter, sometimes as a co-author. “Just because you don’t have a license doesn’t mean you stop contributing. I’m still helping people, just in a different way.” Mid-April he self-published his own story, A Fall to Grace: The Art and Science of Redemption. When prospective clients approach him, “I tell them about my past. I may have lost a couple of deals that way, but usually the first reaction is ‘Thanks for being so honest.’” Telling people, he says, has been therapeutic for him. How people respond, he says—echoing his deepest discovery—“is entirely up to them.”
Ling Lam, 47, Updating the Software
He arrived just in time for freshman orientation, but Ling Lam’s first day in America couldn’t have been more disorienting. His only knowledge of the country had been gleaned from the television series Beverly Hills, 90210. In fact, the disorientation had begun as soon as Lam was born, in Beijing, and it didn’t let up until well after he got a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, in electrical engineering at Stanford University.
The Cultural Revolution was in full swing and, for the first six months of his life, his mother was assigned to work in another city. The day before his second birthday, an earthquake destroyed the family home, forcing Lam and his parents into an encampment. By then, he says, he had long been living in “an emotional desert.” Compounding the attachment breach was “a classic Chinese father who never expressed emotion.”
When Lam was three, the family moved to British Hong Kong, where, as a linguistic and cultural outsider, he was bullied throughout his school years. “I already had an emerging sense that there was something different about me, but when you can’t name it, it becomes an oppression and you feel invisible.”
By the time he got to Stanford, Lam had literally and metaphorically engineered his first survival strategy—what he calls his first “operating system,” his Windows 95. “If you grow up in a desert you learn to survive without needing water. I hid my authentic self to avoid being judged and ostracized. I figured out what other people expected of me.”
Another feature of his OS was to dissociate from his body. “I didn’t have to contact in a conscious way the toxic shame my body was holding,” a product of the early lack of parental attunement, the rejection by schoolmates, and the growing awareness that he was gay in a highly conservative society. Yet another feature was to excel academically—“to earn a sense of worthiness.” Convincing himself there was something wrong with him—blaming himself—had the paradoxical effect of preserving a sense of hope and agency. “It meant I could embark on a self-improvement project and that one day I might still be loved.”
The system worked well enough until his sophomore year of college, when he fell into a profound depression. He tried therapy. On his way out the door of the fourth session, because he couldn’t yet speak it, he handed the therapist a multifolded note with one word on it—“homosexuality.” The therapist did what Lam, now an academic and clinical psychologist, teaches students never, ever to do—“She said, ‘I don’t specialize in this. Let me give you a referral.’” All it did was compound his sense of rejection.
In suicidal despair, he began opening up to a kind dormmate, a sincere Christian. Junior year of college he switched operating systems: He was baptized into her “very fervent, very conservative—and extremely homophobic”—church.
With two engineering degrees, Lam met with external success, but inside was “chaos, darkness, depression.” By 2002, after “two and half decades of trying to run from my demons,” he tried something different—volunteering to work in a Russian orphanage for the summer.
Seeing the profound suffering of others “became a mirror for all the aloneness, abandonment, and emotional pain I’d been trying to escape from. I could no longer pretend or deny that there was so much inside that I hadn’t looked at.”
Soon after he returned, on the advice of an engineer friend he enrolled in a graduate counseling program, and it launched his inner journey. Lam began “understanding the compounded trauma” from early attachment disruption and internalizing the otherness of being a person of color, a gay man, and an immigrant. Somatic approaches “reached places talk therapy couldn’t.” Lam recognized the positive intention of all his interim coping strategies. Fusing engineering and psychological understanding to think of them as operating systems is more than a metaphor. It enables an objective view of the journey to strength, acknowledges that no one conquers adversity all at once—and conveys the important message that coping mechanisms must be upgraded periodically, without attaching judgment to the disutility of things that once worked well enough.
Entering into a relationship provided the long-missing experience of feeling safe in connection. Today, Lam teaches students that therapy must go beyond symptom relief to restore aliveness. “When you numb pain, you also numb the capacity to feel joy.” He visits his parents in Hong Kong yearly. “As the poet T.S. Eliot said, the goal of life is to explore, and when we are able to return to where we started, we will know it for the first time.”
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