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When Your Past Shows Up in the Present

As you know sometimes an old hurt gets triggered even though it doesn't have much to do with the present.  A student of mine recently shared a motto she has that helps her remember this, "If its hysterical, it's probably historical."  This helps her to slow down when she is having a strong reaction and ask herself questions like:  Has something like this happened before?  Does this remind of another time in my life?  What am I telling myself about what just happened?

I often find that if I ask someone one of these questions, she or he can usually name the historical event or relationship of which the current situation reminds them.  However, I find that folks get lost here.  They go down the path of self-analysis or story telling. Being able to name or analyze an old hurt doesn't do much to create healing or connection.  After naming that your past is showing in the present, there are two important steps to take.

First, you want to address the old hurt with empathy and information. Connect with your feelings and needs up around the old stuff.  Then let that part of you know that you are not in the old situation anymore. You can talk to the old hurt like it is another you.

Here's an example.  Recently I was playing basketball with my partner and father-in-law.  I perceived that I wasn't getting the ball equally.  If this perception hadn't stimulated past pain, I may have been able to speak up and ask for a change in how we were playing.  Instead, the pain I had growing up around being the new kid and outsider at school came up.  I lovingly call this my "belonging stuff".  The sense of rejection that came over me was so overwhelming I walked off the court and had to take some time to myself.  After a few minutes of doing something physical on my own, the reaction calmed and I was able to see it for what it was.

In offering empathy to myself I said, "Sure, you're hurting because this is a tender spot and it's still healing. Of course you want to be included.  It was painful moving so much and being the new kid.  I am real clear that these two guys love you and want to include you."

Most important here is your ability to lovingly accept all parts of you that are still healing and sometimes get reactive.  This acceptance combined with a present moment connection to how the need is met and not actually threatened in the present moment creates healing.

Second, you want to address the actual needs in the present situation. Once you have honored the past, you want to remember to honor the present.  You likely have feelings, needs, and a request relevant to the situation at hand.

As I sat with my father-in-law and partner on the park bench, I let them know that my belonging stuff had come up and they were happy to offer empathy and acceptance.  Then we talked about how we could play so that three of us were equally involved.  A sense of equal participation and fun was the actual need of that present situation.  Together we were able to come up with an idea and successfully played together the next day.

Just because you recognize a situation triggered a past pain, it doesn't mean you have to buck up and get over it.  Give yourself empathy for the past hurt and then look at the needs of the present situation and make a request so that your needs can be met.

Take time now to reflect on a situation in which you were recently triggered.  Ask yourself if the situation reminded you anything you experienced before.  Name the old hurt and the feelings and needs associated with it.  Then name any other feelings and needs that were just based on the situation as it was.  Come up with a request you might have made in the moment or perhaps still can make.

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3 Responses

  1. Dec 17, 2009

    Wow! This was very powerful for me as I struggle with some past hurt and how to handle it.

    What is your thought on past hurt that keeps coming up again and again? Does this need further attention? Or should I just keep acknowledging/honoring and then move on to the current need? This hurt is twenty years old.

    My partner insitefully sees a connection that I have denied, it feels like he has a need for me to "deal" with that hurt. I think part of my denial my be concern that it will never go away and he will always have that to point to in challenges that we face together. Oh that fear rears its ugly head!



  2. Feb 24, 2010

    This is really helpful to me right now as I re-experience the emotions of my past with my current employer. (Past and present commonalities - key others at my work acting unilaterally, without attention to effects of their actions on me.) Seeing that my history feelings were coming up (before a meeting this morning) was of little help... Did manage a brief conversation with another person similarly affected this morning (Is how they are, I just shrug it off)... and moving on with the decision-making aspects. Trusting that my partner will help with the empathy part tonight (he already did a bit via phone) feels really good... It feels good to continue to work with what we learned from you, LaShelle, and this gem is a helpful tool today with continuing!

  3. Mar 02, 2010

    Very glad to hear this was helpful Linda and that you are continuing the work!

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