Mental Matters: When Your Past is Present


Talking about the past is totally passé. Unfortunately, just refusing to acknowledge history doesn’t change the fact that it has a huge influence on the present. Psychologically speaking, our brains are programmed by experience, most of which took place in the past. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to live in the moment, but the best way to become truly spontaneous is by integrating the past, not ignoring it.

To understand why, it’s important to know that the brain’s primary concern isn’t for us to be happy and spontaneous; it’s for us to survive. To that end, brains are constantly processing information and adapting accordingly: don’t stick a fork in the toaster, don’t message guys whose dating profiles mention how much they love making dolls out of human hair. For the most part, such survival lessons are easily learned and integrated with the brain’s daily living system.

Some lessons, however, come to us by way of experiences that are beyond our ability to integrate. How does a five-year-old go to kindergarten to learn his ABCs while at home he’s being beaten by someone who’s supposed to protect him? The only way his psyche can manage is for the daily functioning part of his brain to essentially exile the part of his brain necessary for survival, causing a split between the two systems. From then on, a neural network will be frozen at that point in time, triggered by vaguely familiar situations that cue a five-year-old’s negative cognition, stuck emotion and compulsive behaviour.

Let’s imagine that this little guy grows up to be a 25-year-old who works an office job. In this example, the mere presence of his boss will trigger the belief “I’m worthless,” an emotion of anxiety or even terror and a compulsive behaviour like people pleasing or avoidance of work tasks. He will hate work and probably also himself without having the slightest clue that the past is present and he’s simply re-enacting an outdated pattern of survival.

Ever found yourself caught up in anxiety, anger, codependence or addiction, and then fought against yourself because you “should know better?” That tells us that a similar split has, at one time or another, occurred within your psyche. Lucky readers are probably thinking to themselves, “But I had a good childhood!” Fair enough, but things that don’t seem like a big deal to adults can be huge to kids: getting the silent treatment from a parent or even being sent to summer camp can be interpreted by a helpless little person as a threat to survival.

The key to integrating stuck neural networks is to learn to recognize when they’ve been activated and then orient them to the present. Support groups, self-care and all that seemingly hokey inner child stuff are all extremely effective means of doing so. Therapy, especially eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, can accelerate the process tremendously.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that being triggered by certain situations into negative cognitions, overwhelming emotions and compulsive behaviours is not “just the way you are”; it is a neurobiological adaptation and it can be updated. And that’s good news.