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When your painful past interferes in the present

August 8, 2018

It is unrealistic to think that we can get through life without some sort of emotional pain. As human beings, we all experience challenges that change and form us into the people we are today. Just living in the world presents us with continual risk. It’s when painful memories resurface and cause us continued distress that we need to sit up and pay attention to what’s happening in our lives. Some experiences can affect us emotionally, physically, and socially. These past memories may influence our personal and professional relationships as well as our ability to parent in healthy ways. We can carry the hurt and anger from the past into the present and without intervention, into the future.

What happens when past hurtful experiences haunt us and rise to the surface? Thinking about past hurt and pain can lead to other challenges, including depression, isolation, frustration, and addiction (to name a few). Unfortunately, when we are in a situation that creates triggers in our brain, it links us to the past, and we re-experience the emotions from that time. When unexpected nasty things happen to good people, we refer to this as trauma. Trauma can rewire our brains so we are linked to the past, and we respond in ways that may not make sense in the current situation.

How do you know when you are being affected by your history? It often depends on your response and whether or not you feel out of control. Ask yourself, "Does my emotion match the situation?" or "I don’t know why I lost it; I just couldn’t help it." Do you find yourself experiencing an emotion and you’re not sure why? For example, do you feel deep sadness in situations that aren’t sad? Are you sitting at work and just can’t shake your anger? Do you fly off the handle? Do you dwell on the past and just can’t get it out of your head? These triggers happen for everyone, but when it starts to interfere in your everyday life, it’s time to think about dealing with the past pain and hurt.

One of the best ways to help you cope more effectively is to visit a mental health therapist and discuss your experiences and your reactions. There are many tools and interventions used to help individuals overcome their past and focus on the present so that they can build a healthier future. Therapists are trained in helping you understand how your triggers from your past can interfere in your current life.

Marsha Linehan, developer of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, has created some excellent tools to help clients navigate past trauma. She works with clients who experience a high level of distress in their lives and engage in suicidal or unhealthy self-harm behavior. Part of her philosophy is that bad things DO happen to good people, and she has developed the concept of "radical acceptance" which means that we can develop an understanding of accepting the past. Referred to as "distress tolerance," there are a few things that you can tell yourself when you are going through a rough patch:  

  • Life can be tough; it isn’t always fair, and it isn’t always easy.
  • Some things in the past just can’t be changed; focus on the things that can be improved. You may not be able to change the fact that your parents hurt you when you were little, but you can change your behavior so that you don’t hurt your own children.
  • It is what it is… and you can balance the things that you cannot change with the things that you can change. You have lots of choices in life; focus on those.
  • You may not always agree with something or even like it. It’s okay if things don’t always work out the way you want them to. You are always welcome to agree to disagree.

If you believe that your past is interfering with your present and bringing you distress and unhappiness, please feel free to connect with The Family Centre and visit a trained therapist.

It’s a great place to start in understanding your experiences, your triggers, and your responses. You can’t change the past, but you can certainly work towards changing your future.

Karin Hitchcock, MC, CCC

Clinical Supervisor, Therapy and Counselling