Past experiences can be our best friends or worst enemies; they can help us, or haunt us; propel us, or cripple us. Unfortunately for many, our past is more an enemy than friend.
The key to moving forward in a healthy way is to deal with our past constructively — instead of being passively caught in it, we aim to be actively processing it. We can either struggle in windy seas, or adjust our sails.
Here are 7 destructive ways you might be dealing with your past, and how to switch to a better approach:
1. You embellish the past.
When the non-fiction version of our past isn’t quite what we desired, we replace it with fiction as a coping mechanism. That catfish you caught becomes a shark, and the ripple you surfed becomes a barrel.
It works because our imagination is so powerful — just thinking about events can trigger the physical motor and sensory cortex. We can tell ourselves we had a magical childhood, when in reality we grew up in a home with emotional abuse and absentee parents. This imaginary life is a false joy, and the inevitable return to reality is a depressing crash-landing.
If you had an unpleasant childhood, appreciate those difficult years for how they helped you build character. Accept that your parents did the best they could with their limited skill sets. Embellishment will blind you from the sliver lining and the valuable lessons.
2. You ignore the past.
This may be an easy option, but it’s not healthy. Acknowledging an awful experience is the first step in healing, whether you’ve suffered physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological abuse. It will take a ton of courage and self-honesty to initially confront a difficult past (perhaps with the help of a skilled therapist or trusted counselor) but by doing so you will gain strength, guidance, and healing.
Processing the issue does not mean taking responsibility or blame for what happened, it’s taking responsibility in how you respond, and regaining control over your life. It puts you back in the drivers seat. Seek out a professional therapist to talk to, burying it only gives it fertile soil to grow.
3. You romanticize the past.
This is the typical response of those who stay in, or return to abusive relationships. It’s turning a blind eye to the awful 90% that occurred, a way to turn a horror movie into a blissful romance.
Call it what it is: if your relationship brought out the worst in you, don’t let fickle emotions make what’s toxic look like treasure, and tempt you into returning.
The key is to listen to the internal chatter that your emotions produce. When that wave of emotion begins to swell inside, use mediation. Close your eyes, breath deeply, and label each emotion that arises. That ability to separate yourself from your emotions will allow reason and logic to step in and have a say.
4. You deny the past.
Unlike ignoring — in which you refuse to acknowledge something happened — denial is when you know you’re at fault, but respond with lies and deceit. You’ve been confronted about sharing private details and getting a co-worker fired, or sabotaging a friend’s promotion or success, but you flat out deny it.
You’ve let jealousy, pride, and ego dominate your life and give birth to a trail of destructive, selfish behavior. None of us have a perfect record, but continual denial rather than owning up to any offenses will just keep fueling that bulldozer of misery. Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. The future starts when you stop denying your wrongs.
5. You imitate the past.
Groundhog Day makes for a great movie, but an awful life. Past successes should serve as encouragement for an even better future, not templates for our future. So much happiness goes hand-in-hand with change and personal growth, which won’t happen if we’re constantly imitating our past.
If you leave a job you hate, only to jump into the same position in a different company, you’re imitating your past. You tell yourself you’ll never date someone who drinks too much again, but suddenly you’re having dinner with someone who’s high as a kite.
Ask those closest to you if they believe you have a track record of bad decisions. Take a sheet of paper, have an honest look at the last five years of you life. In terms of your health, profession, and relationships, are you better today than you were five years ago? If you have to think long and hard about that question, your life could be plagued with imitation.
Big changes happen with little steps — just do one new thing today. Then focus on those major areas that need change. Apply for that job you’ve always dreamed of; go on a date with someone outside your “type.”
6. You pay it forward.
Maybe we were bullied and discriminated against in the past, and we acknowledge it, which is great —but the way we deal with it couldn’t be worse. Rather than treating people the way we’d like to be treated, we treat people exactly how we were treated.
Your partner is passive-aggressive, you find yourself snapping at your children for no reason. Your friend shows up late and it irritates you, so you start gossiping about her.
Trying to avenge every wrong we’ve suffered is a foolish and impossible mission. It’s true that hurt people hurt people; racism often begets racism. But instead of repeating the cycle, be the blessing that breaks it. Be an initiator and creator of love rather than an evangelist for hate.
7. You inherited the past.
When it comes to personality traits, "inheritances" can be a curse. Your father’s short temper can suddenly become yours. Our culture is littered with broken children trying to live up to the expectations of their parents.
Our parents mean well, but their ideas of success and happiness may be very different to our own. Their attitudes don’t have to become yours, and their law degree doesn’t have to be your future. Vicariously being lived through by our parents is an insecurity on their part, and passivity and lack of courage on ours.
If it resonates with you, by all means inherit the traditions of the past. But don’t ever trade in your authenticity for someone else’s expectations.