I’m a big proponent of being in the present and focusing on the now, however…there is an old saying that holds a lot of value, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” When we have an overly strong reaction to a situation or a person that really does not warrant the severity or intensity of our response, you can be 99.9% sure that your past has just been triggered and is playing out in your present. You’re so triggered because your mind cannot tell the difference between the past and the present. It’s times like these that warrant why delving into the past and processing it would be useful and probably most productive with a therapist. If the feelings are not properly dealt with, they will keep coming up and you will keep getting triggered, and chances are – it will keep effecting your relationships (intimate, personal, professional, etc). Sometimes it’s not enough to just focus on the present and tell yourself that the past is in the past because it can still be triggering you. A great example of this is (which is pretty common) is someone who yells, interrupts and constantly speaks over people. Chances are this person did not feel heard as a kid, probably not as an adolescent either and definitely not as an adult so the acquired maladaptive coping mechanism has been to speak louder, yell, interrupt, etc. This can piss off your significant other, cause problems with your boss, co-workers and/or clients and really backfire because when you yell, interrupt and/or speak over you’re imposing and you’re still not being heard – the person or people you are trying to get to are probably shutting down because no one likes to be yelled at.
I bring this up for several reasons – I come across it in my work and encounters with people on a daily basis. Every now and again, I come across a client who absolutely refuses to see the link(s) between the past to the present and as a result: no amount of talking about the current day issue(s) is going to fix that (what is being triggered from the past). I’m not a fan of analyzing one’s childhood indefinitely because I do think what matters is how it effects today and if it doesn’t, there is no need to dig it up. It’s a universal issue – we hold onto some things- which is why people say things like, “history repeats itself.” Without even realizing it, we tend to hold onto past experiences in order to prepare us for what lies ahead – it’s part of how we think we are protecting or preparing ourselves. All animals (including us) go into fight, flight or freeze when they perceive they are being attacked, but our brains are more evolved than most other animals, so we take it a step further – most other animals aren’t carrying around the emotional baggage that we are (to all my animal lovers out there- as we know animals tend to be much more forgiving than humans). In order to grow, evolve and move on from the pain of the past we must first recognize our emotional baggage and then, we must deal with it. Since we have these evolved brains, we can do that, as well.
So, what could delving into your past (especially with a therapist) actually do for you? Well, if you have a good therapist and you’re open to doing the work, it can start to bring awareness to some of the things you do that you didn’t realize (otherwise known as your ‘unconscious motivation’) and once you have tapped into what the benefit was of behaving that way (ie, motivation), you will be more likely to act consciously and intentionally because you now have a choice about what you are doing. You can start to be proactive and responsive instead of reactive, which is typically impulsive behavior. Changing old habituated patterns/responses is where the healing and growth takes place. When you do something different especially intentionally (on purpose), not only will you (likely) get a different response, but you are starting to create a new way of doing things that your brain will begin to trust (ie, you are building new neural pathways) because it will be good for you and the brain likes what is good for you. What’s amazing about the brain is that is it able to grow, change and even become stronger – like other muscles. Here’s something really important to consider: when you repeat old patterns and you don’t put the work in to do something new (even if it’s just the beginning and turns out to be not the perfect way of doing it), you are reinforcing the old habits that haven’t been working (ie., old neural pathways) and those grooves are getting deeper. Moving forward and trying something new is definitely uncomfortable, but you have to lean into it. It’s how growth happens. One of my favorite quotes: ” Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” –Neale Donald Walsch