The word “trauma” is quite popular these days. We’ve all experienced some kind of “trauma”; yet, one person’s trauma is another person’s minor problem. As a child, one of my friends was repeatedly molested by his older brother, but he insists that it wasn’t a big deal. “It happened and I’m over it”, he told me. At first, I didn’t believe him. But, from talking with him over the years and seeing how happy he is, I now believe him. Something “bad” happened to him, but he isn’t wearing it as a badge that says, “I am the walking wounded”.
He’s a great example of “You are not your history”.
You are not your history of trauma, of bad stuff that happened, of your family dysfunction, of the first person who broke up with you…this stuff may have happened in your past, but how much does your history affect you today? Why do some of us feel like the walking wounded while people around us have moved on into a much happier life?
Unlike my friend, moving on from our history is difficult for most of us. Our brain wants us to keep going back in the past – analyzing and overanalyzing – to figure out “what went wrong” so we won’t experience this bad stuff again.
To some degree, this is helpful. It’s good to learn from things. But, it’s even better to learn from them and move on, leaving painful old memories behind. Plus, much of what you remember from your history is probably inaccurate. It’s humbling, but true: according to hundreds of research studies, our memories are often very unreliable.
In truth, we all have shit in our past, it’s part of life. But, what do we do with that shit and how much do we let it dictate our present? I’m sure you’ve met people who use their past trauma to define themselves, “I’m broken because my childhood was so awful” or “I’ll never trust people after how my ex lied to me”.
Regardless of what you’ve been through: you are not your history. You are your present: what are you telling yourself now about your history? That’s what counts.
If you’re unhappy, what’s holding you back is not your history, but the habits and patterns you’re stuck in that keep reinforcing that history. Luckily, these habits and patterns can be changed: that’s what psychotherapy is about.
The way to a happy life is to confront (in the present) what your past taught you to avoid. My clients are often terrified to do this, “I don’t want to feel all that old pain”, they tell me. “I just want to put it behind me and move on.” Good idea! How do you do that?
Here are some ideas that I use in helping my clients release their painful histories:
- Recognize that your emotions are only a part of you, not who you are. I’ve had clients tell me, “I’ll die if I have to feel those (unhappy) childhood feelings again.” But, they won’t. If you want to be “free” from painful emotions: listen to them. Trying to get rid of them doesn’t work. No matter how painful they are, they’re only trying to help you to not be hurt again: so slow down and hear them. Often, once they’ve been heard, they fade away.
- As human beings, our default is resilience, not fragility. Your odds of overcoming adversity are greater than your odds of falling apart. Focus more on your strengths than your weaknesses: you automatically do this at a job interview. Take this into other areas of your life.
- Be willing to change how you see your past. Our experience of trauma is subjective. It’s not the traumatic event itself that messes us up, it’s the story we tell ourselves about it that keeps us stuck in the past. This is good news, because while we can’t change our history, we can change what we tell ourselves about it, e.g., “Yeah, I had a rough childhood, but I am not an abused 8-year-old anymore. I’m an adult with friends who love me and a life that’s mostly good. I am not my history”.
Give these ideas a try and let me know what happens: email@example.com
—Michael Kimmel is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in helping LGBTQ clients achieve their goals and deal with anxiety, depression, grief, sexually addictive behavior, coming out, relationship challenges and homophobia. Contact him at 619-955-3311 or visit lifebeyondtherapy.com.