How to Get Over Your Past
Have you ever wondered why therapists seem to care so much about it was like for us as kids? That is, why are therapists so interested in our childhoods?
While not all therapists focus on what’s happened to us in the past, many therapists do pay attention to our experiences growing up.
The idea is that our experiences and relationships in our most formative years greatly impact us and shape who we become as adults, for better or for worse.
Your Past Affects Your Present
That means that how we manage our feelings, participate in intimate relationships, our innermost thoughts, and so many important aspects of how we live our lives as adults are shaped heavily by our experiences as children.
Just like we can be wounded physically, difficult circumstances, family relationships, trauma, and other painful experiences can wound us emotionally. We can carry these wounds with us into adulthood unless we tend to their healing.
This idea, that who we are today is the result of our life experiences, that our earliest relationships have so much to do with how we experience our feelings, others, and live in the world, has been largely accepted today.
But how does this work, exactly?
Your Past “Programming”: When We Get Our Emotional Needs Met
When we’re really young, we need our caregivers to be attentive, responsive, and understanding of our needs. When parents are emotionally open and tend to their child’s feelings, the child learns to accept and successfully manage his own feelings.
The parents, in a very real sense, “help” the child manage his feelings until he learns to manage them on his own.
People who get this kind of care growing up generally are integrated, resilient, and emotionally healthy adults. The caregiving they receive as children “programs” them to accept their feelings, to share them without fear, and to manage them successfully.
Their “unwritten rules” about feelings allows them to feel safe, secure, and close to those they care about. These might be rules like:
- I can feel my anger and talk about my angry feelings with my loved one.
- I feel safe in the presence of a love one’s anxiety.
- I can risk being vulnerable emotionally with someone without fear that I will be rejected or abandoned.
- I love myself. I’m good enough.
- I can talk about my needs with those closest to me. I can count on them to meet my needs.
- Sadness is a feeling that I can freely feel and discuss with my family.
These “unwritten rules” about feelings, relationships, and how we feel about ourselves are the bedrock of our lives and how we experience the world. We operate with these rules without even thinking about it. It’s how we’re wired.
So when we don’t get our needs met as children, our experiences create very different rules that form the emotional blueprints of our lives.
Your Past “Programming”: What Happens When Things Go Awry
Parents aren’t perfect. Difficult and painful life circumstances abound. Traumatic events happen all the time. When we don’t get our needs met emotionally, our minds learn to operate by a very different set of rules, rules that are designed to ensure our safety and security.
We’ll do whatever it takes to feel close to Mommy and Daddy and please them, even if that means restricting anger, repressing feelings of sadness or anxiety, or implicitly agreeing with a parent’s critical words. For example:
- A little boy accidentally spills his juice and his mother erupts in anger. “You’re always making a mess!” she shouts. The boy cowers, blaming himself. In time, repeated instances of feeling this shame teaches him that he’s to blame, that he’s not good enough, or that he doesn’t measure up.
- An excited girl runs to her father, eager to show him her latest class project. When he only grunts and looks again to his phone, she is crestfallen. With time, she concludes that she’s not worthy of attention from men.
- A young boy is scared by a neighboring dog’s barking. His father reacts in anger and irritation to his cries. Over time, he learns to suppress feelings of fear and his need for comfort.
Adults with “programming” like this can have real trouble having satisfying, intimate relationships. They may be uncomfortable with sharing their feelings, or, very commonly, they may not be comfortable feeling at all. They might turn to substances or a behavior (e.g., porn, gambling) to help them manage their feelings.
How to Get Over Your Past: Awareness of the “Unwritten Rules” in Your Programming is the First Step
The first step in getting over your past and healing from it is to become aware of the unwritten rules that you’re living by.
Your mind has learned to function on autopilot with these unwritten rules, which govern pretty much everything: Money, feelings, authority, sex, intimacy, God, technology, wealth, success, failure, grades—you name it.
Awareness of these rules brings them into our consciousness so that we can reflect on them, consider them, and evaluate their function in our lives. Awareness will help us make different choices while also helping us think about how the rules show up in our lives.
Awareness jolts us out of autopilot so that we become free to think, feel, reflect, and write our own rules instead of those we inherited.
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