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How to Leave the Painful Past Behind

Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistOctober 25, 2018

All of us have painful experiences in our past that we’d like to forget. But despite our best efforts to leave it behind, the past often has a painful grip on us, and can influence how we think, act, and feel in the present.

Much of my work as a therapist is about helping people make peace with a difficult past—an abusive mother, a traumatic assault, a broken relationship. My patients and I usually spend a lot of our time together addressing exactly the things they’d like to ignore. And for good reason—the most effective way to leave the past behind is to bring it closer to better understand it.

In posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), for example, one of the best-tested treatments involves repeatedly retelling the memory of the traumatic event, which allows us to process the painful emotions tied to the trauma.

There are three main ways we can change our relationship with the past, which correspond to what I call the “Think Act Be” approach:

Think: Create a new narrative. It’s often easy for us to see the negative effects that difficult experiences have had on us. But we can shift the story we tell ourselves—the narrative—about what those events mean. For example, we might come to understand that our painful childhood led to our resolve to be a good parent. Indeed, there’s a good chance that the best parts of you were shaped to some extent by the difficult times in your life. This is not at all to ignore or dismiss the pain we experienced, but rather to transform that pain.

Act: Change your habits. Our behavior patterns are shaped in large part by the experiences we’ve had. If we continue to act the way we always have, chances are we’ll stay bound by those old events. But when we gradually shift our behavior and practice new habits, the past no longer has the same hold on us. For example, we can identify what’s unsatisfying about our relationships and work to develop more effective ways of relating to other people (this is often best done with the help of a therapist).

Be: Come into the present. Bringing our attention into the present can help to lessen the effect of the past. Keep in mind that coming into the present is different from pushing away thoughts of the past, which only tends to strengthen them. Mindful presence acknowledges the pain of the past, without making it our continual focus. A simple breath meditation (such as this one) can be a good place to start.

As much as anything else, practice seeing yourself not as “broken” but as “healing.” We can’t undo the things we’ve gone through, but we can change our relationship with those events. And that can be truly freeing.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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