Potts: Make peace with the past to live more happily in the present

To get to know the people I work with in counseling, we usually spend a number of sessions taking about their personal history. We look at which people were important influences in their lives - both positive and negative. And we discuss how love was shown (or not shown), how encouragement was given (or not given), and how conflict was dealt with (or avoided), in these important relationships.

At first, many of my clients wonder what all this focusing on the past has to do with their present problems. But as we explore their unique history, they soon come to see how important the people and events in their past are to understanding and dealing with their current concerns.

Most of us probably wouldn't welcome such a concentrated and intense scrutiny of our history. There are usually a lot of things we'd just as soon forget: times when we were rejected or embarrassed, when we let ourselves and others down, when nothing seemed worth living for. There is, hopefully, much that was good in our past experiences, yet there will almost always be memories we just as soon not examine too closely.

Over the years I have encountered three different ways people have tried to deal with such history.

Most commonly, we attempt to forget our past experiences. They can't bother us if we don't think about them, right? It's OK to think about the good times now and then, but it doesn't make any sense to rehash past hurts. We'll just wind up hurting all over again. Or so we think.

A second way I often see people dealing with their history is to continue to live it out in the present. Some of us experienced so much trauma and pain in our past that we just get stuck in it, searching frantically for some way to escape. We spend hour upon hour lost in our painful memories. Our present becomes dominated by our need to bring to an end the pain from our past.

The problem with both these strategies for dealing with our past is that they don't work. We can't forget our past. It's part of us. We are who we are because of it. For better or worse (and usually a bit of both) our history will play a part in every relationship and experience we have.

Ironically, when we attempt to forget our history, it actually winds up having more power in our lives. The memories we avoid or deny still affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, we're just not aware of it.

Living in the past is an equally destructive strategy. No matter how much we might want to, we can't go back and do things over again. What's done is, usually, done. In fact, our living in the past just blinds us to the present. In our backward focus, we miss the potential in the here and now. We assume our present relationships and experiences will be just like those in our past. We fail to recognize that life goes on. We deny our potential to change for the better.

We are left with our third option for dealing with the past. We can "make peace" with it.

In making peace with our past we neither repress it nor live in it. Rather, we work to acknowledge, understand, accept, and learn from our history.

We acknowledge our past when we allow ourselves to be aware of our personal history, with all its good and bad, pain and pleasure. We recognize that it is, and always will be, an important part of who we are.

We also try to understand as much as possible the people and events in our past. And we work to be aware of how they affect who we are in the present.

We likewise accept that our past is just that - past. We forgive ourselves, and others, for the pain we find in our memories.

Finally, we seek to learn from our past in order to live more fully and happily in the present and future. We recognize that we are in charge of today and can choose to make it better.

Making peace with our past is difficult, and even painful at times. Yet, such peace is the best (and perhaps only) foundation for a fulfilling present and future.

• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaracare Counseling Center in Naperville, Downers Grove, Geneva, and throughout the North Shore. His book "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children" is available online.

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