So this may seem obvious, but I have trouble leaving the past in the past.
I’m a historian, so certainly I think that the past has value in the present. I think there’s something to be learned from how we got to where we are, or the ways things have changed (and the ways they haven’t).
But when it comes to personal issues, personal growth, it’s often counter-productive to dwell on the past. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I have trouble moving on from things that bothered me, especially big things. But if I’m not careful, even little slights or awkward moments can pop into my head years or months after the fact. What keeps them there, what keeps them active? Is the problem that caused them, or the anxiety around it, really still an issue? Or at a certain point, has the negative emotion just become a reflex?
A few years ago, my husband and I were going through a major conflict in our relationship. We had a fundamental disagreement about how to move forward, and we just couldn’t see eye to eye. Everything would eventually circle back around to this problem, and it was hard to think back to a good memory that didn’t relate to it somehow. A lot of people gave me advice one way or the other to the effect of “one of you is right and the other is wrong”. But one friend said something that really changed things. She said “I know your memories of the past are really difficult, and that’s valid. But you should focus on making new memories that are good.” What I loved so much about this advice was that I didn’t need to think about what I had wanted in the past and how it hadn’t worked out, I just needed to focus on what I wanted in the present, express it, and make it happen. It was absolutely the way forward and my relationship with my husband really changed because of it. Eventually, we were even able to remember those difficult past events differently (not all of them, but most), and not focus on the problems. Making new memories allowed us to disarm the conflicts in the old one. It made it easier to acknowledge the things that we had done wrong, so that recognizing them in the past wasn’t painful, it was just objective fact.
But now I’m finding that there are some lingering issues that I can’t seem to disarm. I talked about this concept a while back in the context of closure – for me, closure is when an issue no longer has the same emotional punch in the present that it did in the past. But for some things, I can’t seem to get to that point. It’s hard for me to distinguish between having felt threatened in the past and feeling danger in the present. There are relationships I ended and situations I now avoid because I felt unsafe, but the memory of them continues to bother me and make those things present when they aren’t. Am I legitimately unsafe in the present? Would I be if I put myself in those situations again? Is the only thing that’s changed the circumstances, or have I really set up new dynamics that will protect me?
When a pain catches you off guard, it can be hard to reassure yourself that it can’t happen again. You didn’t predict it or stop it the first time, so how can you now? Sometimes, it’s enough reassurance that something significant has changed – you know how to anticipate what went wrong, or, if it was an interpersonal conflict, you and the other person have made changes to your dynamic that effectively negate the past conflict. The things that I am having trouble moving on from are instances in which I feel another person took advantage of me or largely controlled the situation to an end that hurt me. I recognize my role in setting up this scenario – I built relationships in which I never expressed or asserted my needs and discomforts, because I felt valued when the other person wanted to tell me how to be or deigned to make space in their schedule to see me. I recognize that I was a passive participant, expecting the other person to know what I was thinking because I wanted them to tell me what to do. I think that now I could largely avoid this situation – I make more of an effort to express my preferences, and to check with myself that I even know what they are in the moment. I try to interrogate my reactions.
In the wake of the first of three major conflicts that fit this pattern, I developed a strong physical response to thinking about it – my jaw would clench, I would shiver a little like my arms were cold, my face and neck would get hot, and my stomach acid would boil up like I was about to throw up. It happened so often that my husband started to notice it and identified it as “upset breath”, because of the smell of stomach acid in my mouth. When I feel this, I know that something is really wrong, and I need to ask myself what it is. How did I get to this level of response? What was the thought process that I went through that triggered it? Through this exercise I’ve been able to disarm a few really potent memories and prevent further negative associations. And I think as a result of this and other exercises of self-reflection, I’ve been able to achieve closure on the first major conflict. But I think a large part of that closure came from one of the other people involved. My husband was deeply implicated in that first conflict, and over the years he’s come to recognize his role and the third party’s role in what happened. Even though there are still parts that we disagree on, we both see the dynamics that were in play and recognize that things had to end the way they did. Because the solution didn’t come entirely from me, I feel safe, I feel that the solution exists in the world and not just in my head.
This is the limit of self-reflection. Because these conflicts and anxieties have a lot to do with other people, I think that, at least for me, I can’t feel fully satisfied with resolving the issue entirely in myself. To some extent, I need to disarm the other person (or people) in the present, either by receiving an acknowledgement from them of their part or by facing them in a way that proves that I could make things go a different way if we were confronted with the same problem again.
In the second major conflict, this presents a huge problem, because the pain I feel from that is still so massive that I never want to see that person again – I am triggered by unexpectedly hearing their name. If this sounds like a huge problem, it certainly is, and I recognize that it’s holding me back in life. The solution I want is the opposite of what the problem was to begin with – this person controlled my life, even when they weren’t around, and I want to know that they don’t have that ability anymore. Maybe I don’t really believe yet that they don’t. Maybe I’m frustrated by the idea that I don’t matter. The last time I saw them (which was years ago) I was constantly nauseous, and I still feel that if I saw them I would have an equal chance of throwing up, crying, screaming, hitting them in the face, or doing absolutely nothing. These are all equally unworkable responses. But I can’t make new memories of this person without seeing them again. I can’t hear anything about them without projecting their past onto their present, and I can’t ignore them entirely because they still exist peripherally in my life. As I said in my essay on closure, even focusing on not seeing them is spending too much energy on this person.
Similarly, the third major conflict was with a person who I still see socially. And in this case, they don’t want to have a relationship with me, but they also don’t want to make their frustration with me public. So we simultaneously have and do not have a present with one another, and therefore there is effectively no room to make new memories and change the way I feel.
I think the root anxiety that keeps these last two conflicts present is that they both have a lot to do with control. I felt I had no control in the unfolding of these conflicts, and that the only control I have over their post-mortem lives is my ability to disengage from the people involved in them. I may have changed the way I form new relationships, but I still fundamentally believe that I do not have the ability (or perhaps the right) to dictate what another person does, and so I will, in effect, allow them to do the same things in the future that they did in the past. I cannot make new memories because I believe that they will be the same as the memories of the past, and I cannot move on because I know that I am the reason these conflicts continue. I know that if I felt capable enough, I could be completely assured of my ability to see these people as impotent, regardless of whether I ever see them again. My feelings about myself in the present would enable me to look at the past and say “but it could never be that way again.” But I don’t feel capable. I don’t have control over myself or the other people, and so the memories continue to live as the present state of things. As far as I’m concerned, nothing has changed.
My husband assures me that with at least one of these conflicts, things can be different now. He says “we’re all different people”. But what he means is “I see myself differently than I did in the past, which makes me see the past differently. I have no anxiety associated with these memories, only regret. And so I see the present in different terms and I feel confident about the potential for the future.” And while his experience of that change is true, my experience of stagnation is also true. It’s not enough for him to reassure me, I have to feel that confidence in myself. I don’t think that I’m a different person. I think I have reflected on myself in significant ways, but I don’t think I have made substantive changes to myself yet. And part of me doesn’t want to. So I think I’m going to have to decide between changing myself enough that I no longer believe the circumstances I fear are a threat, or having new interactions with these people that would convince me that they are not threats. I very well may need more time to get to either point, but until I do, I don’t think I can let go of the upset that I feel around these issues.