I was asked a question in another context over the weekend about how to deal with our past when it is disrupting our lives in the present. I believe the issue is one encountered by enough people that it merits printing my answer here, with the details removed to protect the identity of the person who originally asked the question.
Issues from the past are tricky – but I know that isn’t news to you. I believe they all contribute to who we are today, the good and the bad, and so even if it was possible to erase something from our past we probably wouldn’t want to because we wouldn’t be ourselves.
Sometimes we try to stuff the past into a box and forget about it. We tell ourselves it doesn’t matter, or that we are beyond it when in truth we are just trying to ignore it. When the past intrudes on our life today, there is obviously something asking for our attention. In general terms, without knowing what kinds of things are bothering you, I can tell you that I believe we have to make peace with our past so that we can integrate it into our lives rather than trying to chop it off like some unwanted appendage.
If the thing that bothers us is guilt, it can really help to remember that as long as we did the best we could in a particular situation given the information we had to work with at the time, there really is no reason to be guilty. We did the best we could, it didn’t work out the way we had hoped, and it wasn’t our fault. That doesn’t mean the result might not be painful, but we didn’t cause the result. After all, nobody knows the best choice to make and then decides to make a worse choice!
If the problem is something that happened to us at the hands of another person, it can be really helpful to try to see that person was responding out of their own pain and brokenness. For example, countless mean things have been said by one person to another that had nothing to do with the target of the words – the speaker had a really bad day at work, they recently had a family member take ill or receive a bad diagnosis, their dog thew up on the new carpet – it could be almost anything but we assume it was us. If we can learn what the other person’s pain is, we can start to see that although what happened was unpleasant it wasn’t really our issue. That doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does soften it a bit and puts things in context.
Then there are issues of abuse. Most of all, it is important to remember that it is never the victim’s fault, there is nothing anyone does to “cause” another person to act abusively, and nobody “asks” to be abused. Whether verbal, emotional, psychological, physical, or sexual, abuse is always about power and control and always the fault of the perpetrator. Again, it can be helpful when possible to learn about the history of the perpetrator. Every abuse perpetrator was an abuse victim, though not all victims go on to become perpetrators. Whatever we can learn helps us to see that we aren’t to blame and moves us closer to begin the process of forgiveness.
Of course, all of this is just an overview. If you have more specific questions or circumstances you would like to ask me about, please feel free!