“Like sand on a beach, the brain bears the footprints of the decisions we have made, the skills we have learned, the actions we have taken” (Begley, 2007)

We all have a past. Regardless of our memories of growing up, family structure and home life, or the challenges, traumas, and choices along the way, they have all left a few marks. Our past shapes us into the person that we are today and influences how we approach life. It is natural to use the past reflectively in guiding our decisions today and to think back with the warmth (or the dread) of specific moments or events in our lives.

However, many do not simply visit the past, they live in the past, trapped by regrets, mistakes and pain that they are unable to move forward from.

By obsessing about happier times from your past when things are not all okay in the present, or pondering negative experiences, reliving them again and again, or not being willing to face the pain, you can become stuck, impacting your view on your current circumstances, and preventing you from living in the present or making healthy choices.

How our past shapes us

Our past is filled with any combination of dreams fulfilled and some never reached, hearts broken, highs and lows, success and failure, disappointment and regret and opportunities squandered.

The past does not only affect our current mindset but also, how we make sense of our lives.

  • Events during childhood and early adulthood shape the way you think, act, feel, and interact with people, and in situations It affects our beliefs. If for example you were told as a child that you are poor at maths, you would start believing it, creating an adult you that avoids mathematics to all extremes (even basic calculations) because you believe you are not good enough to even try. Or if your mom often commented on your weight or the fact that you do not have many friends, you might start to dislike your body or avoid people.
  • If you had a critical parent or boss, you might “copy” that behaviour and become a critical parent or boss yourself. If your parents always avoided conflict, you may never learn how to deal with conflict in a constructive way, and either fight, or withdraw in difficult situations.
  • Our past influences how we interact with people. If you were in an abusive relationship, you might find it difficult to trust again, rather opting for isolation than meeting someone new. Or your self-worth might become so negatively affected, that you find yourself in a similar situation again and again. You may also have had absent parents – which might have made you fiercely independent – and perhaps leave you isolated.

 

Remember though that our memories are not all that accurate. Our brain is not a recording device that allows you to accurately relive or replay a moment, encounter, or situation. Our memories are very much influenced by our feelings surrounding the specific experience, and over time can become distorted.

WATCH: The power of reflection

Moving on

If you are not able to deal with the past and let go, you could be vulnerable to mental health conditions such as anxiety (including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)), depression, and even suicide. Significant traumatic experiences, as well as the mental health conditions resulting from it, would require guidance/treatment from a trained professional to support you and help you heal.

Many of us, however, don’t have a specific traumatic event that has caused us pain but rather an unhealthy perspective of our past.

READ: Unpack your emotional baggage

The past can be a great teacher if you are open to exploring the past objectively and constructively.

  • Create a timeline of your life. Write down the most significant events (the hurtful or the deciding points), the happy/joyful moments, and the ordinary and every day that comes to mind, such as Family Friday burger nights. Ask yourself what emotions you conjure with each, what can you learn from them, and how they are affecting you today. If you struggle and keep clinging to the past, identify the experiences you need to let go of to move forward.
  • Refrain from self-sabotage behaviour by wallowing in past experiences with no clear guidance as to how you are going to learn or let go of the experience. Do not dwell on how good things were in the past with an overly nostalgic longing for what was.
  • Do not use self-medication or substance abuse to avoid vulnerable emotions or dealing with what happened to you.
  • Use meditation to ground yourself in the moment, removed from the past and centred in the now.
  • Nostalgic moments are powerful tools for celebrating how far you have come. Use the past to reflect on your growth and authentic self.
  • Do not completely forget the past. Yes, it is painful to relive a specific incident or choice made. If you forget the past, you are most probably going to repeat the same mistakes and never mature from them. Use positive reflection to grow, come to terms and learn.

READ: Your well-deserved hug

  • Practice self-care: manage your sleep, stress, eating habits and connection with others. If we don’t practice self-care, we will not be able to think clearly – not about the past, nor the present.
  • Realise that your past does not define you. You are the captain of your own life regardless of your past, and you have the strength within you to reinvent your life, starting today.

Our past is unique to us and although it cannot be changed, we can learn to learn from it and let go of those experiences that hold us back. Spend some time with your best moments, the worst, and the abundance of today, and realise the incredible person that you are. Wear your battle scars with pride and humility, not with shame or regret.