Healing the Past in the Present

We can't change the past, but we can repair it.

Posted Jul 13, 2019

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Ann’s father suddenly died when she was 12, and now as an adult she is understandably hypersensitive to potential losses in her adult life. When her partner seems withdrawn, she automatically worries that he is upset with her, and her mind travels down the road of thinking that he will leave; when she doesn’t hear from her friends for a while, she begins to worry that there is something wrong with them. And when these anxieties and worries rise up, the past rises up as well — she thinks about her father; she feels vulnerable and young again; the world seems unsafe, that she can’t depend on those close to her to stay close to her.

But while she sees the connection between her childhood experience and her present anxieties, realizing it does little to change how she feels in the moment, doesn’t stop her anxiety from taking hold.

Many of us have events from our pasts that left us wounded — childhood neglect and rejection, death of parent or close family member, trauma such as sexual or emotional abuse. And when these events and traumas occur, 3 things happen: our view of the world shifts — it is no longer safe and predictive; bad things can happen unexpectedly. We adjust our coping style, unconsciously or semi-consciously decide how we now need to be to avoid having these trauma events from happening or affecting us again: We may become accommodating and eager to please, or like Ann hypervigilant and anxious, or on-edge and always ready to fight, or withdrawn, passive, it-doesn’t-matter depressed

And finally, we are left with the emotional wound itself. Like a physical wound, it’s always in our awareness, we are protective and sensitive to anything that may reinjure it. But this same sensitivity often makes us even more vulnerable, not less, to what we are afraid of: Ann’s sensitivity to loss, for example, causes her to immediately interpret her partner’s withdrawal as another potential loss, and her thinking in turn then triggers her old wound. 

But this rewounding and stirring of the past usually doesn't end there. Ann reactions can set off a chain of actions and reactions that fuel a downward spiral that can eventually create a self-fulfilling prophesy: Her partner withdraws, her anxiety rises, and her response is to try and close the distance. This in turn triggers her partner's old wound — feeling emotionally claustrophobic or of having to step up and care for clingy people. He responds by pulling away more, and she tries harder to get closer.

The pattern circles round and round, and at some point, her partner may get fed up and leave. If and when he does, Ann’s finds that her past has become recreated in the present, her memories of the loss of her father are kept alive, and perhaps most importantly and more sadly, her longstanding fears are reaffirmed; her world-view and her story about others, life, and herself are once again proven true. 

Healing the past by breaking the cycle

While we can’t change the past, we can change the present, and by doing so, change the past. Why? Because our pasts are not writ in stone but instead are fluid, always being recast through the lens of the present. You know this is true if you have ever been through a divorce or serious break-up. Suddenly you find yourself looking back at the relationship with new eyes. You mentally rearrange memories, discover new ones. Now we see those red flags that you ignored early the relationship; now you realize how that supposedly innocent yet stinging comment made years ago maybe wasn’t so innocent after all. You see the times you should have spoken up but didn’t, the hurts that you swept under the rug. You are automatically creating a new narrative that matches your current state of affairs.

But what we do automatically we can do deliberately. By consciously changing what we do in the present we create, in the same way the divorce does, a new lens through which to view our past. And more importantly, by acting differently in the present, we break the past-affirming cycle, rewrite the seemingly inevitable storyline, create through our actions “corrective-emotional experiences” that literally rewire our brains, and, in turn, change our view of our world and ourselves.

Here’s how to do it:

Get closure

Often, we remain sensitive to our wounds in part because we lack closure on the past events. No, this does not usually require years of therapy to “work through” the past; actually, such endless plowing through the past can often make things worse by keeping us looking backwards rather than forward. Getting closure is taking active steps to emotionally begin to put events to rest, and can be as simple as saying what we couldn’t say back then.

Because Ann’s father died suddenly, she probably did not have an opportunity to say to him what she wished she could have said, just as someone still haunted by the effects of a divorce may have not fully been able to express in the heat of the legal and emotional turmoil all the mixed emotions they had at the time. Here Ann writes a letter to her father, saying what she did not say; here you reach out to your ex-partner, expressing your more complete feelings about the divorce. 

Does this radically change the power of the past? Probably not. Does it provide some peace? Likely. But more importantly, by being proactive you are taking active steps to change the narrative. Your action itself recasts your role in your old story: you are no longer a passive victim.

Get tools to manage your reactions

Ann needs tools to help her manage her anxiety when it begins to overwhelm her. This is important for two reasons: One is that by having ways to calm herself she will feel less at the mercy of her anxiety, and instead feel more empowered. Secondly, and more importantly, her active counter-punches to her anxiety keep her from going on auto-pilot, which, in turn, can help stop the downward spiral of actions and reactions in her relationships — for example, she may seem less clingy to her partner or desperate to her friends, which in turn will change their reactions to her. The same would apply to someone, say, who is always on-guard and ready to fight: By changing their aggressive reactions, others are less likely to respond in kind.

Like closure, this does not require years of therapy but instead learning of self-regulation tools through through short-term therapy, a life-coach, or reading about and then practicing the new skills.

Upgrade your coping style

Finally, the rewounding and the triggering of the past are being driven by the coping style, likely unconscious, you developed way back when and born out of the few options you had at that time. But while it worked then, it doesn’t work as well now in the larger adult world. Instead of helping you it now only keeps alive those child feelings, that child view of the world.

The way to upgrade your coping style is through conscious adult action. Here, Ann doesn’t go on autopilot when her partner withdraws and doesn't assume it is about her, or become overly accommodating and cautious, but instead steps up and asks him what is wrong. Or here, rather than  getting defensive and irritable when your supervisor asks you why you haven’t turned in your report, you apply your self-regulation skills, and respond in a calm, adult manner — that you’re sorry that you didn't keep your supervisor up-to-date, but you were waiting on some information to include in the report and only received it today. 

What you are essentially doing by deliberately changing your reactions is doing now what you were not able to do as child. You are being assertive, approaching problems from the position of an empowered adult rather than that of a frightened child. These assertive actions with practice help you recast your view of yourself as vulnerable and, in turn, make you less susceptible to triggering of your wound. And finally by responding differently, you find out that what you think will happen doesn’t — that your partner says that he is sorry for being so withdrawn but he is struggling with work stress, or your supervisor doesn’t rant and scold but instead simply asks that you get the report to her as soon as possible.

These seemingly small but important emotional experiences become those corrective-emotional experiences that as you create them and they accumulate in your life, change your view of you, your life, the world and others. You come to learn that the world, after all, isn’t quite as unsafe as you thought; you don’t have to stay on edge worrying about disasters but instead can take decisive action. And as you do this, the old wounds and the past they are connected to are less triggered.

They begin to heal and fade.