Is your past influencing the present? Challenge, choice and change
What is it to be human? I often ask myself this question. Ultimately, I am wondering who I am and how I have evolved to be the person I am today.
There are so many aspects to consider: familial relationships, childhood environment (both at home and school), friendships, positive life events, trauma, loss, health issues and the list goes on. How we adapt to each one of these, either using rational thought or instinct, is how we have learned to be human and how to relate to other human beings in our lives. This innate survival instinct enables us to adapt to situations and people around us and to cope with what life throws at us.
We first learned these skills as children, watching those around us and particularly our primary care givers. They became our teachers of life. Through childhood observation and felt experiences, we stored memories of how to relate.
Unless we challenge ourselves in adulthood, it is possible that we hardly ever consider relating to people in different ways and carry on repeating patterns of behaviour that, in some cases, are not healthy for us. An example that springs to mind here is the experience of a critical parent.
Imagine a child trying their best, giving it their best shot at tidying their room or doing a piece of homework, only to be told by a parent/caregiver that their best was not good enough. Instead, the parents’ focus is shifted away from the child’s achievements and on to the bits they need help with. In this case, praise is constantly lacking from a child’s life. Somehow a child learns to relate to themselves in this way too and before we know it, the seed of an inner critic is sown. Is this a healthy way to continually relate to yourself? Some would suggest it is a way in which we self-monitor but, when it is a constant way of viewing ourselves, I would suggest that it is decidedly unhealthy.
So, what do we do? The preferable option would be to challenge that pattern of relating with yourself. With challenge, comes more choices and then change - a different way of experiencing life.
In therapeutic terms, the ways in which we communicate with others are described as “patterns of relating.” The relationships we formed in childhood, whether with family, friends or teachers, are the most influential we ever have. Unconsciously we use the memories of these relationships to inform us about current relationships and how to relate to people in our present day lives.
Have you ever been in contact or conversation with someone and suddenly thought “You are just like my Mum, she wagged her finger at me too.” “My Dad used to give me that thunderous look when I angered him.” “My Brother used to storm off in that way when I stuck up for myself.”
Knowing what triggers us can aid our understanding of how our patterns of relating are activated. It's easy to forget that we have five senses and have the ability to use all of them to relate to other people. Memories of how we have related to people in the past can be triggered by sights, smells, sounds, touch and tastes.
In moments of relational distress, slow down, ask yourself “How am I feeling right now?” and remember to breathe deeply. This is self-care. Recognise any thoughts, memories or feelings and try to link them together. Is this about the past or the present? Can I separate the two?
I appreciate that I am asking you to do a lot here. Think of it in terms of learning a new skill; it takes time and practice to master. This form of challenge needs you to be gentle and kind to yourself which doesn’t come easily to most people. Try it and see what happens. Be curious about your own reaction.
If you discover a link with the past, be it a person or a memory, then you have a choice. You can choose to separate the past from the present. Leave the past in the past by trying to be as fully present in the moment as possible. Experience the person that you are with as the person they truly are and not who they resemble from your past.
The choices in the way you relate to others are yours for the making. As an adult, you get to choose rather than be told how to behave.
Knowing that you have freedom of choice comes with the ability to change parts of your life. The parts that are not as fulfilling as they might be or those pitted with unhappiness.
The slightest most subtle changes in our patterns of relating can bring about rewarding changes in our lives. Changes do not have to be big to bring about a more satisfying experience of what it is to be human.