Dealing with or dwelling on the past?
In the field of therapy, it is not uncommon to hear therapists discussing the idea that “It’s not what’s wrong with you that we should be asking, but what’s happened to you”. It is an interesting concept, to think about a person as not simply having something wrong with them (say, a depression or borderline personality disorder diagnosis) and therefore seeing them as passive beings in their own problematic experiences, but as seeing the person as having had something happen to them in life that has impacted them in a negative way, leading them to such a diagnosis.
It goes without saying that everyone is different and there are many people who feel they have never gone through a difficult experience that would have led them to seeking therapy to help them deal with an issue they are struggling with. For those that have experienced some sort of trauma or difficult time in their life, however, finding it hard to maintain positive mental health and lead a fulfilling life can be a result of distressing past experiences.
There are a huge range of examples we could use here. Being in a past relationship where your partner cheated on you could result in you thinking any future relationship is going to end in betrayal, causing you to sabotage new relationships. Being in a car accident years ago could result in you never wanting to drive or get in a car again, limiting how you live your life. Facing abuse as a child could result in you struggling to develop close relationships as an adult because you cannot trust those who are meant to be caring towards you, leaving you to live a lonely life. The possibilities are endless. What all these examples have in common though is something distressing has happened in the past and it is having a negative impact on the future.
How do people overcome their issues that they associate with the past? Do they dwell on them or deal with them? And what does dwelling on them or dealing with them even look like?
Some people don’t even realise that they are living their present life constrained by their past, so recognising that something is awry is an important first step. For those who are aware of past experiences that are affecting their life in the present and worried that this will be the case for their future, seeking help could be the way forward.
Talking therapies allow you to express to someone impartial and non-judgemental what you are currently experiencing and what you have been through in the past. For some people, just being able to get this out, which they may never have said to anyone else before, can be incredibly therapeutic, with many people describing it as ‘having a weight lifted off them’ – as clichéd as this is, it can really feel that way.
This isn’t the case for everyone though. Talking about upsetting past experiences can cause some people to feel even worse, highlighting the importance of working with a professional when seeking therapy, who will be able to work with you to pace sessions in such a way that you don’t feel uncontrollably overwhelmed or triggered when talking about traumatic past experiences, therefore helping you to feel safe.
Talking to a professional about past difficulties and coming to terms with what has happened is not always straightforward. Talking things through can result in some people dwelling on what has happened, leading them to feel stuck in the way they feel in the present because of the past. This stuckness is often linked to the fact that the past cannot be changed and so people think that they are always going to feel the negative way they do.
Acknowledging bad things have happened in the past is one thing. Thinking that they must determine your future is another. The past does not have to determine the future. As Martin Seligman, a pioneer of positive psychology, states: “To the extent that you believe that the past determines the future, you will tend to allow yourself to be a passive vessel that does not actively change its course. Such beliefs are responsible for magnifying many people’s inertia.”
In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman highlights that there is little valid evidence to suggest untoward events in people’s pasts will always have a significant influence on their future. To know that this is the case is a far more liberating approach for people who have experienced terrible things in their past and feel they will always be imprisoned by them.
Seeing the past as providing you with learning experiences that have made you who you are today can be far more useful than only dwelling on the negatives that have come with the past. This more optimistic view acknowledges the courage, gratitude, resilience, creativity and many more positive attributes that we gain in life, despite being faced with adversity. This can be really difficult for people to realise when struggling with a negative mindset, as it is the complete opposite of what they are used to believing. I’m sure the idea of transforming horrible memories into good ones is baffling to a lot of people. But beliefs we hold because of past experiences are not finite. They can be challenged and changed. Positive psychology argues that through gratitude and rewriting the past so that our bad stories are altered to take note of what can be forgiven, learned and appreciated, it is possible to free ourselves from the negative power our past holds on our lives now.
We have a choice whether we want to dwell on and be held back in life by the pain of our pasts, or move into the future free from unhelpful beliefs about what’s to come. The latter is possible… and far more appealing.