The Hazards of Living in the Past


This piece is about dwelling on what happened to we survivors in our pasts. It is not intended to belittle anyone’s traumatic pasts, nor is it intended to say that one should not look at their pasts with open eyes and live there for a time. It is intended to help other survivors see that eventually, when the time is right, it is best to move on and leave the hurt and frustration from the past behind. Please read this post with the understanding that I too have been traveling the same road and have been stuck in the same frame of mind that I am speaking about here. I have lived where many of you are living and have achieved enough stability to be able, through hard work, to make my traumatic childhood into an asset rather than a lifelong liability.

As you, my readers, may know, I was the victim of severe and repeated childhood trauma. The harm done to my mind and body are incalculable, but in my long travels down the road less taken, I have found myself in and out of a particular mindset that has caused me even more harm than the original trauma ever could, in allowing myself to dwell in what happened to me.

There are indeed hazards to living in the past. One cannot enjoy today if we are constantly reliving the hurt and pain of what happened so long ago. However, after saying that last sentence, I will add an addendum. I understand that to conquer who you are one, must come to terms with who we were, but to live there forever, well that is counterproductive.

When I entered therapy almost three decades ago I lived, ate, and breathed my past trauma. It was like I was wearing a sign on my forehead that screamed what had happened to me. I was so caught up in what had happened that I spent all my time and energy coming to terms with the horrendous memories and the physical realities of what had occurred. I even dwelt on thoughts of revenge, planning in my mind how I would go and murder those who had harmed me. The anger that I experienced ate away at my consciousness, and I became more and more depressed and unstable. Eventually, I was so unstable that I had to enter a long-term psychiatric facility.

During my stay in the facility, I was very fortunate to be assigned a wonderful therapist who refused to allow me to remain wallowing in my own pain and sorrow. More than once she challenged me to pull my head out of my issues and see the world in its present realities rather than to immerse myself totally in the past. Slowly, achingly, I began to emerge from my self-imposed prison of pain and sorrow.

What are the benefits of staying in the past? The only one I can see is that it marks us as having a special identity, that of victim. That may sound harsh, but any reality is better than none, and usually victims of childhood trauma have been struggling all their lives to find out who we are, so victim becomes our entire identity. When I was stuck in this victim mentality I would often find myself telling someone I had just met not my name or what wonderful things I did in with life, but that I was a victim of childhood trauma.

It’s normal and okay to be in this mentality for a while, but to stay this way for a lifetime is to doom oneself to a life of tragedy and loss. It becomes a self-imposed jail cell into which no light can shine and we can get lost in its darkness.

The benefits of living life in the present far outweigh those of dwelling in the past.

I’ll give you an example from my own life. In the here and now I am not being traumatized, and life isn’t scary like it was back then. I live a relatively quiet life, and enjoy writing my blog and attending college. I have friends, a few loving relatives, and all my physical daily needs are being met. Why should I wish to dwell only on the things that hurt me four or five decades ago?

My identity has changed radically from victim to living well and prospering (to use a Vulcan term).

Does of that mean I will never face adversity or face the effects of what happened to me ever again? No. I will always be effected by what happened to me in my body and my spirit. There are some scars that won’t heal, but I can tattoo over those scars new memories and go ahead and chase my dreams.

I’m advocating for everyone who reads this piece to consider the notion that someday you will need to lay down your victim mantle and pick up the living one. This does not in any way belittle or erase what you have gone through, rather it brings respect to those struggles. What better way to honor your past than to take what you have lived through and learn from it, using it to propel you toward the future.

The pain did not define who we are, it changed us to be someone better and increased our importance to the world.

“My scars remind me that I did indeed survive my deepest wounds. That in itself is an accomplishment. And they bring to mind something else, too. They remind me that the damage life has inflicted on me has, in many places, left me stronger and more resilient. What hurt me in the past has actually made me better equipped to face the present.” Steve Goodier



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