Most of us have one or two ways of dealing with the past. Some of us try to bury it away. Our attitude is whatever happened happened; we can’t change it, so we should just let it go. Others of us seem to get stuck in our history. We’re deeply triggered by memories or become overwhelmed by old feelings. We struggle to let the past go. Research now shows us that neither of these attitudes is particularly adaptive or beneficial to our personal development. Although, these approaches to the past may seem entirely contradictory, they actually lead to the same ultimate outcome. If we avoid facing the past, we fail to recognize the many, often limiting, ways it’s influencing our present. On the other hand, if we over-identify with and ruminate on our childhood experiences, we still find ourselves being ruled by these events. In both cases, we are failing to differentiate and live our lives on our own terms.
Research shows that in order to free ourselves from the past, form healthier relationships, and show up today as the people we want to be, we have to make sense and feel the full pain of our story. When we fail to face unresolved pain from our childhood, we have many, often unconscious, ways of repeating it. These repetitive patterns are not intentional or thought out. The big and small traumas from our early lives may not consciously feel like they’re dictating our actions. Instead, they come out in ways we don’t realize –for example, in partners we choose, critical attitudes we have toward ourselves, and dynamics we create with our children. Events from our present day lives trigger implicit memories that are often painful and cause us to react rather than act in our own best interest. In this sense, we’re often reliving rather than living our lives, filling past prescriptions rather than forging our own path. So, what are the ways we relive rather than live our lives?
Repeat – One of the ways that we carry on our past in the present is by repeating behaviors and taking on characteristics of important figures in our early lives. Of course, this can be a good thing when we’re adopting ways of being that we value and respect. However, as human beings, we have a tendency to over-identify with the negative traits of our parents or early caretakers. We actually struggle to surpass or see ourselves in a different light from the people who originally cared for us. On an unconscious level, we take on our parents’ traits in an effort to preserve an idealized image of them.
While it may seem counter-intuitive, it can actually feel painful or threatening to separate ourselves from our parents by seeing them realistically, including all the ways they were limited and hurt us. Instead, we identify with our parents and take on their qualities. For example, if we had an especially elusive or inward parent, we may find ourselves feeling unavailable to our loved ones or pulling away from relationships when they get too close. If we had a parent who worried excessively and intruded on us, we may find ourselves feeling the same way toward our children and acting in ways that are invasive or overbearing.
React – The opposite side of the same coin comes when we rebel against our parents’ way of being. Once again, it’s healthy and wise to identify traits we don’t like our early caretakers and to choose to be different in these ways. However, we sometimes are so determined to be different from our family of origin that we overcompensate or distort our natural way of being. For example, if we hated the way our parents did not get along, we may grow up writing off relationships or love in general. We may vow to never get “too serious” with someone or trust anyone on a deep level. Or, if we felt deprived as kids, we may try to make up for it by overindulging or spoiling our own children. We may project onto our kids that they feel like we did when we were young, and therefore, react to them in ways that are misattuned to their actual wants and needs. In each of these cases, we are still seeing the present through a filter of our past and failing to separate ourselves from our history. We’re not allowing ourselves to fully realize who we really are and what we really want.
Recreate – Another way we fail to step out from the shadows of our past is by recreating environments and dynamics that are similar to those we experienced growing up. This pattern can be tricky to identify. However, we may find ourselves somehow dating or marrying people who treat us in ways that are similar to how we were treated as kids. For example, if we grew up with a parent who made us feel small or insignificant, we may find ourselves attracted to partners who are more dismissive. If we had a parent who frawned over us, we may only feel drawn to people who build us up or offer us all of their attention.
Another way we recreate past dynamics is by distorting figures in our lives and projecting traits or reactions onto them that come from our history. For instance, if we had an untrustworthy, flaky, or rejecting person in our early lives, we may consistently feel we’re being deceived as adults. We may assume our partner is pulling away or cheating on us, even when there are no real signs that this is the case.
Lastly, we may even unconsciously provoke people in our lives to react to us in ways that are familiar, even though they were painful. If we were seen as babyish or incompetent as kids, for instance, we may find ourselves acting more helpless or needy with our partner. If we had a parent who lost his or her temper, we may try to provoke that same reaction out of the people we’re closest to in our adult lives by insulting them or trying to push their buttons.
All of these patterns of behavior may lead to unpleasant, even devastating outcomes, but they also help us maintain habitual, old, often negative, ways of feeling about ourselves. Even if we’re hundreds of miles and many years away from our childhood environment, these patterns allow us to remain in these familiar environments on a psychological and emotional level. This lack of differentiation can cause us to feel bonded to our early caretakers in ways that limit us. This illusion of connection may have felt like a lifesaving adaptation when we were little and needed these people for our very survival, but as adults, these patterns are no longer adaptive and hurt us in our ability to become who we ourselves want to be.
To the extent that we don’t recognize and separate from these destructive adaptations, we fail to live our own lives. The good news is that by creating a coherent narrative of what happened to us, we can actually separate from unfavorable overlays of our past and become the people we want to be. When we start this journey to better know our own story, we open ourselves up to new possibilities and liberate ourselves to make real change and create a better future.