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The Past Is Always About the Present

When the past suddenly rears up, it's time to see what's wrong in the present.

Brad had a one-night stand several years ago while on a business trip. He thought he and Sara had put it behind them. Then out-of-the-blue, Sara brought it up while they were in the middle of watching a movie on Netflix, asking again why he did it, whether they had known each other before... question after question.

“I thought we were beyond this!” Brad was angry. “Why now?”

Good question, Brad. For Sara, this is about Brad’s mini-affair, but for others, it may be some 10-year-old argument when the police needed to be called, when the other person made some inappropriate and mortifying comment to your mother at a wedding three years ago, or not about the other guy at all about you: ruminating about your job interview last week that you’re sure you blew; the time you did make that stupid comment to your mother-in-law at the wedding; a vivid childhood memory of sexual abuse.

The past is always about the present. It is like dreams — why did you dream what you did last night rather than something else? Undoubtedly linked to something going on for you right now in your life. The short-circuit to Sara and Brad’s impending argument is figuring out and hopefully talking about the why now, the present.

Here are the common triggers for this uprising of the past:

You’re dealing with loss

You just got fired from your job, you broke up with your boyfriend, your grandmother died. Here you are dealing with active grief, and with such grief naturally comes a reviewing of the past through a new lens: Mistakes on the job, that argument with your boyfriend that should have clued you into realizing that the relationship was in trouble, fond memories of your grandmother.

This is normal and to be expected. Your mind is trying to connect the dots between the present loss and your previous sense of the past in order to make a cohesive narrative. Once you do, the obsessions usually stop.

You’re dealing with a chain of losses

Losses tend to connect to each other. The triggering of one will often trigger others, especially if these past losses haven’t been fully resolved. Here the breakup triggers memories of other boyfriends, other breakups, other rejections. The death of your grandmother makes you think about your childhood dog who was hit by a car. The loss of the job makes you think of other jobs that you liked or struggled with.

The past reflects a re-surface of core dynamic

Why is Sara thinking about Brad’s one-night-stand now? Because it is telling about something what’s wrong in the present — that Brad seems more withdrawn or preoccupied of late, or that they haven’t been much of a couple or having as much sex as they used to. These shifts can easily trigger Sara feeling insecure, uncared for, untrusting, and with these feelings come her mentally falling back into the past.

The core issues may be those of the relationship — that their dynamics seems to follow this yin-yang pattern — or the stirring of Sara's particular emotional wounds — those negative behaviors and emotions she learned to be particularly sensitive to in her childhood; often it is a combination of both. What’s important is seeing the past as a red-flag indicator of a current problem.

The past reflects a lack of closure

Or maybe Sara’s going back there because she never fully understood why this happened at all. Instead she and Brad “patched it up," but she was left with too many questions that she was reluctant to pursue for whatever reason. Now those lingering questions rise to surface, triggered perhaps by stress or subtle shifts in the relationship now.

The past is tied to trauma

Trauma can be big or small but always in the eyes of the beholder. The person who was sexually abused may freeze up or dissociate when being held too tightly in a non-sexual way. Being suddenly cut off by another driver may trigger road rage after that car accident months ago.

Here the links to the past may or may not be so clear, and this is one case where it is less about the present and really more about the past. There may be bodily reactions, a sense of panic, hyper-vigilance, flashbacks; triggers in the present are tied to unresolved trauma.

The past is about depression

If anxiety is generally about the future, depression, along with its tiredness or "why bother?" attitude, naturally drags back into the past, that emotional swamp of regrets and mistakes, the mental retelling of "what should have been." What you think about is generally a symptom, not the cause, of your being in a depressive state.

The theme running is through all these sources is Brad’s question: Why now? This is what you want to tap into by stepping back and engaging your rational rather than your emotional brain. Some ways to do this:

  • Ask yourself, "Why now?" Sit down with yourself when you are emotionally calm and ask yourself Why is this coming up now? Is it tied to triggers like stress, relationship dynamics, old losses, lack of closure, old wounds or traumas?
  • Write it down. Do free-association journaling. Write "Why Now" at the top of a piece of paper and write by hand whatever comes to mind. Let your mind and your hand just go. See what comes up in the way of memories, feelings.
  • Talk it out. Do essentially the same by just talking to someone you trust. Ask the other person to just listen, not interrupt. Just get out of your head whatever is in your head. See where it leads you.
  • If it persists, get professional help. This is particularly important for trauma and depression, but such help can be useful for dealing with old losses, current grief. With even just a few counseling sessions you can track down the source of your ruminations and find tools to put them to rest.

And if you’re on the other side of the conversation?

Brad’s “get off my back,” “stop bringing this up,” is not what to say. Instead, realize the other person is struggling. This is not a time to get defensive or angry.

Instead ask you in your most gentle "Mr. Rogers" voice, “Why are you bringing this up now? Is there something wrong between us now? Is there something that you are worried about?” And then, just listen.

That said, this is no reason to allow yourself to be emotionally abused. If the conversation feels like it is going in that direction, end it, circle back, try again. Or better yet go together to a professional to have a safe place to talk it all out.

Our past and present are intricately linked. Use your past to tell what you need to learn or fix in the present... and improve your future.