Prisoner of the Past

Shackled

These words are as much for myself, a fellow traveler in life, as they are for you, reader. It all started a couple of weeks ago during a conversation with a friend. She shared she was “the black sheep” of her family based on her younger years. She described how her negative image of herself and search for acceptance led to addiction. Despite years of sobriety and personal growth, she feared her family still saw her as dysfunctional. In truth, deep down she still saw herself as dysfunctional and this held her back in many ways. 

I so desperately wanted my friend to see herself through my eyes. The thoughtful, striving, beautiful (inside and out), young woman before me was anything but a screw up. I had only known her for a little over a year and had never seen her as anything but compassionate, mindful and sober. This was a pivotal moment as I saw myself in her story! I too, often become a prisoner of the past. Shackled to an old identity. Denying myself the grace and understanding that I easily offer anyone else who has overcome and grown from past adversity. 

Letting Go

This lesson apparently needed reinforcement which came yesterday when I was decluttering sentimental items. My goal was to let go of yearbooks, something I had been debating for a long time and finally felt up to the task.* I went through page by page, pulling out only those that had meaning to me, which would be scanned and digitized, allowing me to let go of the physical yearbooks. 

This task was hard. Not the letting go of the yearbooks, but revisiting a time that was filled with so much strife, trauma, and a lot of regret. My mood tanked as I looked through the glossy pages of homecoming queens and cheerleaders. I imagined how much better life would have been at that point had I received guidance and made wholly different choices. Thinking to myself as I looked at the smiling faces of my peers, “They had it so much better than me. They were better than me. They are still better than me.” 

A Story

That’s when I caught it, seeing it for what it truly was. A story. I was telling myself a story about who they were, who I was, and what that meant about me in the present. It was a very generalized, one sided story that discounted the positives, might I add. Damn. Day in and day out in my role as a psychologist I point out others’ stories and help them reframe. Yet, there I was, spinning up a doozy of a tale. I never claimed to be perfect, reader; I warned you I was a “fellow traveler.” 

Change

Next, because I am a glutton for punishment, I thumbed through some old journals. The Universe was giving it to me both barrels that day as it landed me on the page where I processed a very painful breakup. In this journal entry, I recorded verbatim and wrestled over the words my partner had said to me in anger, “You will never change!” I eventually came to question this accusation. As a 23 year old, was I really doomed to stay the same for the rest of my life? 

No. I have changed so much and for the better. The person from that journal entry has taken hundreds of thousands of steps to get to a new place and she isn’t stopping anytime soon. I continue to grow and change. One day I hope to look back at this exact post with more wisdom, perhaps seeing some errors or oversights in my current thinking. And for my ex’s sake, I hope he has changed as well. 

Science Says So

The Universe now, it can be quite timely if you give it a chance; The Universe was certainly on a roll with me yesterday. One of my coping skills for difficult, ruminative thoughts is healthy distraction. My favorite of which is to listen to motivating podcasts. After I packed away (what I was keeping) of my sentimental items, I started an episode of the Afford Anything podcast titled, Personality Isn’t Permanent with Dr. Benjamin Hardy .** He said exactly what I needed to hear in that moment. I recommend giving this episode a listen if you have resonated with anything I have written above. But, in a nutshell, this is the premise of what Dr. Hardy had to say, summarized by Afford Anything:

“According to research, most of us believe that we’ll maintain the same beliefs, goals, preferences, and behavior as our past selves. We believe that we’ll continue to plod along the trajectory our past selves set, destined for the same end-goal.

That belief is flawed, and in some cases, downright wrong.

Past you ≠ present you. Present you ≠ future you”

Erin @ Team Afford Anything

So there we have it. We change. However, we tell ourselves stories about who we are based on the past which can truly hinder us. For my friend, it could hold her back from a happy, fulfilling relationship and letting her family enjoy the gift of her authentic presence. For me, it can make me hesitate to write blog posts that are vulnerable and potentially meaningful to someone else. In a story fueled fugue, I buy more things I don’t need, to make up for perceived deficits and hide deep insecurities.  

Reframe Your Story

I am starting to appreciate that, to paraphrase Dr. Hardy, ‘all the things of my past happened for me, not to me.” Had I not known pain or trauma, I would not be able to connect in the way I do with the folks who entrust me to help them navigate and heal their own story in therapy. Had I not made some poor financial choices, I would not have sought out and committed to FITE with the ferocity that I now feel, nor would I have grown and learned in all the ways I have so far on this journey. 

How about you? Try asking answering these questions for yourself:

  1. What painful story are you telling yourself about who you are based on events, choices and behaviors from 1, 5, 10, 20 or more years ago?
  2. What might make you think this story isn’t true, or not entirely true?
  3. If a close friend was the one with this story instead of you, what might you say to him/her/them?
  4. What do you lose or how do you suffer by continuing to tell yourself this story?
  5. What can you gain by releasing yourself from this story or changing your perspective on this story?

Reader, you hold the key to opening the prison gate of your past.*** I hope you see this and find the strength you need to fling open the door to your freedom. 

* I know, I know. Getting rid of yearbooks is practically sacrilege for us sentimental folk. It was not easy. I plan on making a post about how I managed letting go of personal memorabilia.

** Does anyone else get a tickle out of someone with the name Hardy writing on resilience? 

*** We can all use help from time to time; that can be especially true if you are a survivor of trauma. If you think you might benefit from speaking to a professional, one place to start is with your insurance company, or you can use an online directory such as the one here by Psychology Today.

2 thoughts on “Prisoner of the Past”

  1. This post is so touching and inspiring! It gives me hope that I, too, can let go of my past. I also laughed out loud a few times. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your journey and words of wisdom. I look forward to journaling on the questions proposed. Sending much gratitude.

    1. Hi Irene. Thank you so much for the positive feedback. I am glad to hear this resonated with you. Best of luck to you on your journey. SRD

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