“It is impossible for the past to distress us. The past is precluded. All our anxieties are in the present”, wrote the philosopher Igor Sibaldi, thus changing the focus of attention from the past to the present, from the immovable to what we can change.
There is no doubt that the past can become a heavy burden that prevents us from moving forward or keeps us paralyzed at a point on our path marked by feelings such as guilt, sadness and/or resentment. We cannot go back to the past to change it. What is done is done. However, what really bothers and blocks us – although we often have trouble recognizing it – is not the past itself, but what that past says about us, is what that past brings to the present.
Our brain is “anchored” to the past
The only past that blocks us is the one we cannot accept. A study carried out at Harvard University proved that when we live a very stressful situation, those experiences remain engraved in the brain.
These neuroscientists asked people who had suffered a psychological trauma, to hear a description of what happened to them and, in the meantime, their brains were scanned. They discovered that when people relived the past, some parts of their brain were activated, especially the amygdala, the core of fear, and the visual cortex. However, they also found that Broca’s area, the area responsible for the language, was deactivated.
This means that when we live a very emotionally intense situation and look at the past, we relive it as if it were real, we experience the same emotions with the same intensity, because we have not been able to accept it and turn it into a narrative experience.
Turning the past into a narrative experience means that we have given it a meaning and we have incorporated it into our life story. That allows us to move forward. However, many times we are stuck in that past because we cannot integrate into our “ego” what that experience says about us.
When we do not want to accept parts of us
Cognitive dissonance implies a conflict in our system of ideas and beliefs, an incompatibility between two simultaneous cognitions. It is an internal incoherence between the image we have of us and the new image that an experience has brought up.
When a situation in the past involves a change in the way we see ourselves, it is harder to accept it. If we have violated our own norms, values and beliefs, we find it very difficult to assume the split that has been generated in the ideal “ego” that we had built.
Back in 1980, Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of New Jersey, discovered that we often look at ourselves in a very positive light, so positive that it breaks with the odds to the point of making us harbor unrealistic expectations about ourselves.
In his studies he appreciated, for example, that people believed that they were less likely to develop an addiction than others and, at the same time, that they were more likely to reach the old age in good health compared to the rest of their peers.
That means we can see ourselves in an excessively optimistic light, which prevents us from accepting our shadows. Perhaps that past forces us to accept that we are not as sincere, empathetic, altruistic and/or strong as we thought.
When a situation brings out those shadows, it is difficult for us to accept them because it entails a change in the image of the “ego”, which means rethinking who we really are and understanding that we are not as perfect or good as we thought.
Accepting our shadows is not easy, but it is the only way to really know ourselves. It is an interior journey that we all must undertake and that will allow us to free ourselves from the weight of our past, accepting our mistakes, weaknesses and inconsistencies.
Rauch, S. L. et. Al. (1996) A symptom provocation study of posttraumatic stress disorder using positron emission tomography and script-driven imagery. Arch Gen Psychiatry; 53(5): 380-387.
Weinstein, N. D. (1987) Unrealistic optimism about susceptibility to health problems: Conclusions from a community-wide sample. Journal of Behavioral Medicine; 10: 481-500.
Weinstein, N. D. (1980) Unrealistic optimism about future life events. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 39: 806-820.