Can we ever leave the past behind?
Upon death - maybe!
Prior to our demise however, I would argue that the physical and psychological consequences of life's journey remain - driving us either consciously or without our consent to act in ways that are either for or against us. Fortunately, for many of us our past provides a stabilising and supportive script which becomes an enabling influence in our present. Others of us are able to satisfactorily suppress past conflicts and thus, manage them. However, problems occur when we experience difficulties that begin to dominate our personal existence - yet the origins of these inner tensions remain unclear and/or unresolved.
In his book ‘The Power Of Empathy’ Arthur Ciaramicoli states, ‘We must always keep an eye on the past. We need to know and understand what happened to us back then, not in an effort to guide our present-day interactions or predict the future, but in order to see how old patterns, judgements, theories and idealisations interfere with what’s happening in this moment.’ (Ciaramicoli 2000: 56).
This excellent observation illustrates the importance our history plays in determining our overall sense of self. By linking past trauma with our present day behaviour we can become more objective, thus leading to greater mastery over our emotions.
As a counsellor, I understand the profound affect our history (especially that of our childhood) can have in relation to our overall sense of self and the ways in which we express ourselves to the world. Some of us may have repressed memories of brutal abuse experienced during childhood which now drive us to destroy not only our lives but also the lives of others. It would appear that an unconscious thirst for revenge can leads us to engage in acts of violence in a desperate attempt to hide the truth of the despair of the tormented child we once were.
In such circumstances, we often use substances such as alcohol or masking activities like over-achievement to deny our past reality. It is as if we need an alternative focus to provide a distraction, shielding us from the fear of quietness during which the loneliness and anxiety of childhood is felt most profoundly.
However, not all of us experienced a childhood in which we were uncared for or neglected. Although we have all read and heard about extreme cases of child abuse, many of us look back on our formative years as being filled with happiness and freedom.
Nevertheless, according to the author of ‘The Drama Of Being A Child,’ Alice Miller, ‘many people enter therapy with the belief that their childhood was happy and protected. Often, the pride of their parents, these people are successful in most things they undertake eventually becoming admired and envied.’ (Miller 2005: 5).
She goes on to explain that ‘many therapy rooms are full of such patients but behind all this outward success lurks depression and a feeling of emptiness. For once the drug of grandiosity fails and when they are no longer on top they suddenly get the feeling of failure and become plagued by anxiety and deep feelings of guilt and shame.’(Miller 2005: 6).
This example shows that for many of us, traumatic childhood experiences remain hidden in darkness with an absence of any real emotional understanding of the seriousness of such events. In fact, for some of us we have repressed our history so completely that the illusion of a happy childhood seems to be maintained with ease.
Of course, it is important not to become over zealous and begin regurgitating all those painful past experiences we had to go through whilst growing up but it is useful to go back and reconsider them from a different point of view. Typically, highly distorted and irrational beliefs surround much of our past so we may need to learn how to think about these events from a different perspective. In some cases, learning to forgive may also be necessary to get beyond the emotional pain. Forgiveness may pertain to the actions of other people or to our own misdeeds and failures to act when we could have. Of course, in order for all of this to work, it has to be more than an intellectual exercise, it has to “come from the heart.”
Interestingly, the ‘re-experiencing therapist’ Merton Gill challenged Freud’s belief that positive change came about solely when we remembered past trauma or a hidden conflict. Gill said that remembering alone was not enough and that we also needed to re-experience conflicts and emotional trauma in the presence of the therapist. Gill emphasises the importance of the therapeutic setting as this can bring old patterns alive. These in turn can then be worked out with the assistance of the counsellor, breaking the old patterns of relating.
In conclusion, I hoped to have demonstrated the importance of our past in influencing our overall sense of who we are and the myriad ways in which we relate to others. Nonetheless, it is essential we do not become stuck and over analytical about ourselves and our personal history. Sometimes past traumas do fade and lose their importance, especially if our present is one that offers us the possibility of free expression whilst remaining in close touch with our feelings and emotions
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