It’s not an overstatement to say that many (if not most) people feel that their character and to a large extent their life has been shaped by their formative years, usually early childhood. Perhaps even more significantly, many people are reluctant to put their past behind them as they feel it holds the key to their life, their personality and possibly their future.
Harbouring resentment and unhappiness
This model of thinking has encouraged people to hold onto their past, particularly negative elements. Perhaps it’s a natural human instinct, to harbour resentment and unhappiness about the wrongs that have been done to us. But what purpose does it serve reviewing and revisiting these negative experiences? Does this type of rumination enhance our lives or serve a purpose?
Modern developments in mental health practices teach us that holding on to negative memories, reliving them and reviewing them is an entirely negative process which brings no benefit. Contrary to our natural instincts, releasing past, negative experiences will only enhance our well being.
Why do we cling to the past?
So what’s happening here? Why do we cling so tightly to negative past memories? Is it possible to release negative experiences? And if we can, then how do we do it?
Let’s take a very general example. A young man believes, rightly or wrongly, that his father doesn’t love him. As a child his father often reacted to him angrily and occasionally used violent behaviour. Without ever articulating it to himself, the boy learned to feel afraid of his father and perceived himself to be at fault for being unlovable.
Rumination and worry
As this boy grows into a young man he experiences some challenging and stressful periods when he suffers from periods of insomnia. This is entirely normal and happens to many people. However, as he lies awake at night he ruminates on his childhood, overthinking events from his past.
He resents his father for his cruelty. Ironically, although the events of his childhood are receding further into the past, reliving them serves to reinforce resentments, anger and negative emotions. Moreover, the feelings he harbours from the past continue to negatively impact his current relationship with his father. He feels isolated and alone. Additionally, he relates to his boss in the same fearful way that he relates to his father. He feels unappreciated at work. His feelings of fear mean that he is reluctant to ask for help. He is in a cyclical pattern of behaviour that only serves to make his life worse.
Confirmation bias is a well understood concept. It’s when we look for evidence in the world around us that proves our pre-existing beliefs to be correct. It’s natural human behaviour which can manifest itself in many different ways. However, when emotions and beliefs are negative we are instinctively reinforcing this cycle of negativity. Our emotional repertoire is familiar with this set of feelings, behaviours and habits.
People are creatures of habit. Whether we like it or not, the groove that we get into is one that we like to stay in. Ironically, this is still the case, even if our habits and patterns are uncomfortable for us. The same types of feelings and emotions are repeatedly brought to the fore because they are the ones that we feel familiar with.
Survival behaviour understood
Schools and education may have been around for several hundred years. However, the human brain has developed over many tens of thousands of years. Our brain is an incredible tool that taught us effective survival behaviour in the eons before education existed. Much of this innate biological training is fear-based. Fear is an amazingly powerful and successful emotion.
The situations that we fear as children condition us and teach us how to behave through a densely intertwined physical and mental set of responses. Our mind doesn’t differentiate between the fear of a parent’s rage or running for your life from a charging boar. In both instances our conditioned response is fear.
Fear as a barrier
As we grow up and into adulthood we are conditioned by our brain and body to respond and behave in certain ways. Often it’s fear that prevents us from stepping beyond the parameters that our brain has instilled in us to protect us. What proportion of people are frightened of speaking in public? Most, apparently. It’s something that we’ve become afraid of. And what we all believe is that it is difficult, let’s say, virtually impossible to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. Our character, our identity is set, or so we think.
As rational, educated, wise human beings, this may be how we are biologically predisposed to act, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way. We can do better.
Developments in science demonstrate that far from being set, our brain exists in a state of neuroplasticity. This is important because it’s what hypnotherapy and CBT both rely on. We can change. Our mind can change. Personalities can evolve. Outdated beliefs suggested that our personality became set with the onset of adulthood. But we know better. The mind is adaptable and we can train ourselves to be better.
What modern psychology teaches us is that letting go of past behaviours is not only achievable, but it’s very simple when we know how. What’s more, it can pave the way to a much happier, healthier and more fulfilled life.
The vast majority of people aren’t facing life or death situations in day-to-day life. Largely, we’re living a routine existence, often at a desk, often fearing nothing more than our boss showing disapproval towards us. Once we learn to loosen the restrictions that our prehistoric brain has placed on our behaviour, we can learn to outgrow our fears.
I’m not suggesting that we should forget our childhood, wipe it from our mind or lose contact with our past. What I’m suggesting is that we can begin to loosen the ties with feelings of negativity that are not in our best interests.
Black and white thinking
The young man I mentioned in the earlier example is dogged by what he sees as an unloving relationship with his father. Knowing what we know about the brain, this young man could work on altering his perspective on his childhood experiences.
There are many methods of working on thoughts in the therapy room. One technique is to start loosening black and white thinking about past situations. Thoughts aren’t facts. Once we understand this, we can begin to focus our mind in a very different way. What a four-year-old boy may have perceived as an unloving or angry father, might actually have been somebody suffering from depression.
One possible route into this is positive suggestion, like the ones that are used in hypnosis, not strictly stating something as fact, but suggesting that there may be other ways to see a situation that you had previously treated as immutable truth. Perhaps…
- … nobody realised how unhappy I was
- … he was doing the best he could
- … I don’t have all the facts about what was going on
- … he was depressed
- … he didn’t know how to manage the situation
Letting go of negativity
In this way, therapy enables us to let go of past negativity, whether this is anger, resentment, guilt or anxiety. It’s key to understand at this juncture, that the goal of the therapeutic process is to improve current thinking patterns. We’re not trying to whitewash the past. The process doesn’t attempt to excuse anybody of poor behaviour.
An individual’s view of the world is exactly that – one view. The way we think about the past is by its very nature based on a very one-sided view of what went on. Memories from childhood are very unreliable. Even though we may feel that we are in full possession of the facts, this can be very far from the truth.
Like drinking poison
Working to reduce negative emotions, including resentment anger and hatred is in all of our best interests. We’ve all heard the old adage, ‘Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die’. To spell it out: If you feel bad about something, then you are feeling bad when you don’t need to. You can let go of old, unhelpful feelings and move towards a calmer, more optimistic future.