Part of Kathy Caprino’s series “Finding Brave To Build a Happier Life and Career”
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Virginia to visit my elderly mother and my sister. I live far from them and I don’t get the opportunity to see them in person nearly as much as I’d like to.
My sister and I did a lot of catching up and a lot of talking – about our lives, our families, our current areas of focus and, of course, our challenges. In our discussions, something happened that stopped me in my tracks and made me think long and hard.
I was sharing with my sister a story of an event from my past – when I was 16 years old – that was devastating to me and still angers and hurts me to think of it. I won’t share the details of the story but I can tell you that the net effect of the event back then was that, as a young teen, I suddenly and irrevocably felt very alone and I realized that it was not safe for me to share my fears and my grief with this individual because their response and backlash gave me the clear signal that they couldn’t handle it unless I was continually demonstrating myself to be strong and capable. Their boundaries were such that my fear and grief was too much for them to bear. And their response made my grief and fear even worse.
After sharing that story to my sister, she mentioned that she’d heard me talk about that event MANY times before. I hadn’t realized how many times I’d repeated it, but clearly it was a LOT. She then offered that, while it was perfectly fine with her to listen to that story as many times as I wanted and needed to tell it, she felt sad for me that the pain of that event was still so alive and “active.”
We began discussing how both of us can, at times, delve back into the past and dredge up the hurtful things that happened to us, with very specific detail, as if it happened yesterday. Sometimes we’re doing it just because something in our current lives triggered the painful memory. Sometimes we do it as a way to vindicate why we’re feeling what were feeling today. And sometimes we do it, I believe, because the past is absolutely not dead to us – it lives in a vibrant, active way inside of us and, in many cases, is still coloring much of what we’re thinking, feeling and communicating. And it influences our decisions and relationships as well.
In my years as a therapist, and in my career coaching today, I’ve seen that what happens to us in childhood and in our early years dramatically shapes us, so much so that if we don’t actively address the pain and trauma that many of us experienced, it will never be released. If we don’t look it squarely in the face and learn to see it differently and move beyond it, we will never be free of it.
As a therapist, I learned too that “trauma” can occur even in happy families, families that seem to have it “all together” and are the envy of the neighborhood. Children and young people can indeed be traumatized by even one parental remark or event, or one behavior that was crushing and made them feel very sad, alone, scared or rejected. These traumatic events are often burned into our memories and will not let go, unless we actively work to address, heal and release the pain.
The longer I thought about my sister’s remarks to me – that I have repeated that one painful story over and over in past years – I had some very potent realizations about whether or not talking about our past is helpful, or keeping us stuck in a never-ending cycle of pain.
Here’s what I’ve seen to be true about talking about the past:
When it’s helpful to talk about the past
I’ve seen that sharing a painful story from the past can be helpful, but only under one condition – when you endeavor to think differently about it, to be willing to grow beyond it, to learn from it and be positively changed by it, rather than simply repeat it over and over, in the exact same way, without new awareness or growth.
When it’s hurtful to keep talking about the past
On the other hand, it’s hurtful to keep talking about the past when you’re using that story over and over again, in the same way, to vindicate you and to justify your current behavior, to yourself or others.
Talking about the past solidifies the memory that you have it, and often, that memory morphs over time and changes the whole tone and nature of the event, often in a way that supports the anger and pain you continue to feel. I don’t mean to imply that we consciously want to change history. But we often do revise actual events in our minds (even ever so slightly) so that those events tell a story that’s more in line with the pain we’re feeling today. In other words, our memories are a reflection of who we are today.
How to grow beyond pain from your past
People often ask me, “Kathy, how can I let this go? How can move beyond this painful event that keeps me feeing devastated?” There are many ways to heal, but I’ve found that one of the most potent, effective way is first through growing in your willingness to let this pain go, to stop blaming this other person, and for you yourself to become someone different – who is stronger, more resilient, more authoritative and capable of running your own life in successful ways.
Often we don’t want to relinquish the painful memory because doing so might feel like a betrayal – to our hurt self that was so damaged at the time by the event. But if we can see the bigger picture, and understand that we are NOT that person any longer, that we have greater capacity for strength, power, resilience and growth – we can understand that we’re not betraying our younger self, but actually honoring our expanding capacity for growth and happiness.
The more we can be willing to finally let go of the blame and the pain, the more we open the door to become the person we really wish we were – strong, capable, joyful, loving and forgiving.
I’m pretty sure that our younger, more vulnerable self would want that for us – to not stay stuck in the cycle of blame and pain, but be willing to learn and grow from past hurts and thrive beyond them.