Are You Living in the Past?
Self-protection is good. Overcompensating for yesterday's pain isn’t.
Posted August 23, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Old emotional injuries have a way of complicating our lives, by clouding our judgment and making decisions harder than they need to be.
One of my clients—let’s call her Sheila—was assigned far too much responsibility as a child.
At the tender age of five, Sheila was regularly punished for typical childhood lapses such as leaving the gate open and failing to wipe bathroom surfaces clean. She was also expected to help other family members in any way possible, without having to be asked.
As an adult in therapy, Sheila realized she’d been forced to carry far more weight than was appropriate when she was younger. So she began to allow herself not to assume responsibility for others, unless asked.
This new approach came from Sheila’s healing and growth, yet it made her a passive partner in relationships.
For instance, while packing her own suitcase for a vacation, she noticed her husband’s reading glasses on the bedside table. Feeling it was not her responsibility to remind him to pack his glasses, she said nothing.
On the airplane, Sheila and her husband both pulled out books to read during the flight. That’s when he discovered he’d forgotten to bring his glasses.
When Sheila mentioned that she’d seen them on the bedside table, her husband asked, “Why didn’t you remind me to pack them?”
She instantly felt annoyed and snapped, “Your glasses are not my responsibility.”
Her husband, hurt and miserable, sat quietly beside her while she fumed. Their vacation got off to a poor start.
If Sheila had been able to enjoy a childhood without adult responsibilities, she might have made a different decision on spotting her husband’s glasses. Knowing their importance to her book-loving mate, she could have either packed the glasses herself or mentioned them to him before they left. Her refusal to get involved in whether her husband had his reading glasses is an example of adverse overcompensation.
It’s true that Sheila shouldn’t have had so much responsibility earlier in life. But it’s also true that in adult intimate relationships, we take responsibility for each other in many small ways—usually by choice, not out of obligation—as a way of expressing our intimacy.
Sheila’s refusal to take responsibility for others comes from a place of self-care, but it leads to distance in relationships. A good thing turns out to be a bad thing.
Another example of “the presence of the past” and overcompensation is even more common.
Many people are unfortunately mistreated by important others in childhood. They vow to themselves that when they grow up, they’ll never let anyone treat them badly again.
As adults, whenever they feel hurt in a relationship, they’re reminded of the injustice of their early mistreatment. They assume their hurt today must be the result of current mistreatment—just as it was in childhood.
In reality, relational injuries often occur without anyone behaving particularly badly. We miss each other’s cues; we make incorrect assumptions; we don’t hear each other clearly. Ordinary miscommunication leads to emotional pain, despite good intentions.
The positive learning from one’s early mistreatment, in the form of self-protection, becomes a negative influence in the form of hypersensitivity. We overreact to our own pain as “proof” of others’ malice or lack of caring. A healthy response to injury and injustice in the past has morphed into an unhealthy reactivity in present relationships.
That Was Then...
If you were given too much responsibility as a child, that was wrong. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s still wrong today to take responsibility as an adult. If you were mistreated and hurt as a child, that should never have happened. Yet it doesn’t mean your current hurt in a relationship is the result of mistreatment.
Standing up for yourself in the ways described above may not be appropriate or helpful in today’s situations, even though it would have been appropriate and helpful for someone to stand up for you back then.
Until we heal from past hurts, we run the risk of treating our loved ones today as if they were our oppressors of yesterday.
We “fight back” against normal behavior as if it were still inappropriate, and protect ourselves as if we’re still being attacked. That’s why therapists like to ask clients whether the current hurt in their lives feels familiar.
The past must be processed and healed. Until that happens, it may remain too present.