“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Ellen literally stood up and screamed at me, “Don’t try to tell me I’m just some kind of little baby who hasn’t grown up.” In a way she hadn’t grown up. A childhood trauma survivor with anger issues, anxiety attacks, signs of depression and negative interpersonal relationships, she was not aware of the effects of her past.
I wasn’t surprised by her behaviour because so many of my clients have said similar things to me. Basically, what they are saying is that their past should not affect them. They are not alone. So much of society is saying this. They say that we all need to ‘move on’ from our pasts or ‘get over it’. However, the truth is, our pasts are powerful and we can’t just move on. Why not?
Why Our Pasts Have Such Strength
“At every moment, behind the most efficient seeming adult exterior, the whole world of the person’s childhood is being carefully held like a glass of water bulging above the brim. And in fact, that child is the only real thing in them. It’s their humanity, their real individuality”― Ted Hughes, 1930
So much of who we are comes from our childhood. Technically speaking, 100 billion neurons and trillions of neural connections happen in infancy. All the experiences, feelings, impressions, relationships and traumas construct this wiring. The enormity of this can’t be brushed aside or bypassed. In so many ways we never grow up. Faced with this, how do we cope as adults when so much of who we are is rooted in childhood?
Dealing With Our Past
“Oh, my alcoholism problems are caused by my screwed up childhood, and I basically will always be a child. So basically there’s no hope for me.” Roger said with complete disgust.
Many clients say similar things. They come in with problems such as addiction, depression, anxiety, codependency, anger management and others. My answer contains two parts: 1/ Your childhood remains, but you can learn to face it. 2/ Through neuroplasticity you can rewire yourself.
Facing your childhood – Facing your childhood means to look at it honestly and face the facts and feelings that come up when you do this. Trauma counselling is about making connections between the past and present. Your history, thoughts and behaviours begin to have a meaning. You see that you are not fixed, that you were shaped as a child and can change as an adult.
“Among other things, neuroplasticity means that emotions such as happiness and compassion can be cultivated in much the same way that a person can learn through repetition to play golf and basketball or master a musical instrument.”
An adult mind that is willing to make changes can reprogram its wiring. The old wiring is still there but we can learn new responses, thoughts and feelings. It’s harder because we’re older, but motivation can provide the energy to do the necessary work required.
Our childhood is very powerful. But it doesn’t have to rule us. We can psychologically ‘grow up’. As a client recently said, “It’s like I grew an adult mind. This new mind can now manage the kid who used to be out of control.”
So the past is powerful, but we are no longer condemned to repeat it.