"The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there" - LP Hartley, The Go-Between.
Ask most people for a snapshot of the inside of their minds at any one moment, and it's likely that their thoughts will be centred around either the past or the future.
One of the biggest conundrums about the human condition is that while our lives may be lived in the present, in our heads we rarely dwell in that tense; we prefer to linger in the past or concern ourselves with our future.
The practice and study of mindfulness is really all about learning to appreciate and savour the present moment, not just as a way of reducing stress and anxiety but also to enjoy greater success and peace in our lives.
Consider, for example, the practice of driving our car. This is an activity that is, and certainly should be, all about the present moment; our vehicle, our actions, and what is happening all around us. It's when we lose focus on the present while driving that accidents can happen.
But this blog is not about mindfulness, it's about something that concerns and 'weighs down' a great many of us - our past, and how we feel it can hold us back.
When we are born we cannot help the circumstances and that's a fact. We have no control over our family background and, until we get quite a bit older, very little over our opportunities in our early years. So it's true to say that when it comes to education, opportunities, friendships, families, relationships in our formative years – we often have to accept what is given to us.
And that can damage our mindsets as we grow older, and we feel that we could have done better, could enjoy better and more fulfilling relationships, if only we had been handed more opportunities when we were young.
How does our past affect us?
When it comes to relationships, those of us who experienced poor relationships when we were young – being either neglected, or mentally or physically abused – can be very damaging in our later life. Those people who have been through these things when they were children or young adults often react during the trauma by 'closing down' emotionally, as a natural defence mechanism against attack. That means that when genuine love, affection or support comes their way when they are older, they can find it hard to trust and connect with people. The brain has made damaging connections in response to certain signals and it's hard for those to repair and to heal. This website is not a professional therapy service, but it's nevertheless helpful to know that this is what is going on inside our heads when we are struggling to form and accept good relationships as adults.
Troubling relationships and even abuse as youngsters isn't the only way that our past can hold us back, although it is probably among the most serious. But many of us can feel ourselves weighed down or held back by many other ways. We can, for example, absorb messages about ourselves that then hinder us in the future from fulfilling our potential. Consider the teacher who tells us, "you'll never amount to anything". Or perhaps we may give ourselves messages such as these in response to perceived attitudes from others.
Also, when we have been presented with few opportunities as young people – perhaps our family background was loving but financially unstable – this can make us feel that we are coming from disadvantage and affect our self esteem as adults; the feeling that we are not quite good enough to work alongside others who we feel did not come from these types of backgrounds.
How we can react
People react in different ways when they are troubled by their past. In times of perceived threat, we can often over-react to other people in order to balance what feels like an imbalance in ourselves. But what we don't consider is that the other person has no idea what is going on inside our heads. Often, this can come out as bullying – being overly aggressive to other people in order to make ourselves feel better and to try and reconcile ourselves with our past.
At other times, when trauma happens in the present that closely mirrors something that has happened in our past (even if it's to a much lesser degree) our brains can reignite any mental breakdowns that we had in the first instance, and act them out all over again.
How to live with our past and look forward to a brighter future
Our past has brought us to the point in our lives where we are now. But it does not have to define us. We are as we are right now. This second. Take a look at the person you are now. You may well be far more successful than you thought possible when you were younger. Take pride in that. Own your present, and your future.
Therapies that can help
Different types of therapy can help us deal with issues from our past and move on.
Trained professionals are there to help if you feel there are things in your past that are severely damaging your present and your future. Picking up the phone may be the best thing you ever do.
Writing a journal
Many people find it very helpful to write down their experiences, whether they are those in the past or our day-to-day lives. There is the sense that writing something down in some way releases the memory of the experience from out of your mind, 'unlocking' it in a way. Try it. It's free, and it could help.
Talking to friends
This method is, in a way similar to the above, for those of us who prefer to communicate by talking. Good friends are there to listen, advise and support. Talking things through makes many of us feel a lot better. Even a friend who is able to be gently critical of the way we ourselves have reacted can really help give us a new perspective on how other people may have viewed our actions and intentions.
This goes back to the mindfulness point, above. Artistic endeavours are really all about the present moment - the actions, feelings and emotions we are feeling right now, and how we express those through art. Many people who look to this kind of therapy also talk about how they feel more at peace after performing the activity for an hour or two. Just concentrating on one of our senses, our sight – in the instance of the visual arts - can be enormously stress-relieving.
Reaction and response
As anger management specialists at My Internal World, we talk a lot to our clients about the difference between reacting to something and responding to it. Reacting to something suggests something knee-jerk, something instinctive, something we haven't considered first. This is often when we over-react, and we say things we regret. This is when we may visit on our people some of the pain that's going on in our heads, born from our past.
Responding to something is something that we have thought about first.
What happens to you in your life is of less importance than how you respond to it. It's all about you. It's your life. Live it in the present, so you can enjoy the future.
Don't let your past hold you back.