Dwelling on the past: how to move forward

As 2021 moved into 2022, I felt motivated to build the future. I stopped dwelling on the past, including looking for what needs to heal.

I find it much too easy to get caught up in “healing the past” without being fully present and moving forward. You might say it’s a very effective procrastination technique.

We work on healing the past, dealing with our regrets and forgiving our mistakes and omissions to do a better job of living in this moment and building our future. Lately, I’ve been reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book, where he talks about how people with trauma never seem to be fully present because they get stuck dwelling on past events. It becomes their entire focus and identity.

Sometimes I forget and start believing that healing the past is an end. The whole point of the healing journey is to return to well-being and wholeness.

I want to be present and build for the future, not living in the past or the future.

Somewhere out there, a wise man said that if you're depressed you are living in the past and if you are anxious you are living in the future. The secret to inner peace is simply to be in the present moment, dwelling on the past
Somewhere out there, a wise man said that if you’re depressed, you are living in the past and if you are anxious you are living in the future. The secret to inner peace is simply to be in the present moment.

Caught in my habitual response and feelings

What has been fantastic about the last two years was the change in my self-awareness. For years I have been muttering under my breath:

Stop the World! I want to hop off.

And in March 2020, it finally happened. The world – as we know it – came to a halt, and most of us hopped off the hedonic treadmill we didn’t even know we were on.

I don’t know about you, but I suddenly had to face myself – light and shadow; past, present and future; hopes and fears. It wasn’t all pretty. I saw the worst of myself, especially my trauma responses and how much I still blamed the past.

My first response: exhausted and searching for an escape

My mind and body shut down: all I wanted to do was dissociate (either sleep, daydream, watch Netflix, or play video games). The best thing – and the worst thing – to come out of 2020 was that I saw the very worst of me.

I was probably also very, very tired. Exhausted and chronically fatigued.

I gave myself permission, for about six weeks, to sleep. I slept more than eight hours every night. On top of that, I slept two to three hours every afternoon. Days dragged on and lasted forever.

Until I finally woke up.

Perhaps I had finally rested enough. Or maybe I just got sick of my response to the collective fear and isolation we were all experiencing. In any case, I decided it was time to rebuild connections (online) and get myself moving.

  • I made sure I had two or three virtual coffees each week with friends or colleagues.
  • Then, I started new book clubs, exploring and learning about my trauma responses and why I shut down.
  • I also reconnected with my Power-of-Eight group, setting intentions and holding them together with a group of powerful women.
  • Most importantly, I started to get coached again, ensuring I had accountability to move forward with my life despite whatever was happening in the world.

Know thyself before forming new habits

The most important lesson of 2020:

to make better decisions, know thyself

I eventually realised that healing is not about dwelling on the past. Healing happens in the present when I can see how the past shaped who I am and how I am responding to life and then choose a new response.

Some of those responses are deeply ingrained. They are habitual responses of self-preservation created by past trauma. Neuroscience tells us:

Neurons that fire together, wire together. (Donald Hebb)

But just as importantly: neurons that are out of sync unlink. The brain circuit forms in a “use-dependent” manner, creating a default setting based on which circuits are most frequently used together.

Dissociation is the essence of trauma.
As long as the trauma is not resolved, the stress hormones that the body secretes to protect itself keep circulating, and the defensive movements and emotional responses keep getting replayed.

The challenge is not so much learning to accept the terrible things that have happened but learning how to gain mastery over one’s internal sensations and emotions. Sensing, naming and identifying what is going on inside is the first step to recovery.

Bessel van der Kolk, “The Body Keeps the Score”

So, if I wanted to create a different response pattern in my life, I needed to uncouple my typical response from what my body considered a triggering event.

Thankfully, I have the tools for doing this.

Talk therapy, balanced breathing and coaching

There was a moment (long before 2020) when I did years of talk therapy. This had a lot of benefits at the time but kept me dwelling on the past.

  • I forgave myself for not knowing what I didn’t know;
  • Additionally, I found empathy and understanding for others and how they treated me;
  • It allowed me to process many of the experiences of my childhood that I hadn’t dealt with; and
  • I gained a much better understanding of my emotions.

Thankfully, in 2015, I changed to a psychologist who did a lot of diaphragmatic breathing to work through PTSD, c-PTSD and staying present. I am so grateful for the hours I spent learning how to breathe and simply sit in my body with my emotions. Focusing on my breath set a foundation for my work in mBraining.

Eventually, I moved out of directly focusing on my trauma into coaching, which I have found to be based in the present, moving into the future. The modalities of what is available are too many to mention!

The more I dive into mindfulness (being present and focused on my breath), compassion and loving-kindness, the practice of awareness, and living in the present, the more power I have to make changes. 

Dwelling on the past: the lies we tell ourselves.

My version of dwelling on the past is not something I typically do in my mind, mulling over events and thinking about everything. Instead, it plays out in my actions and responses to stress!

I’ve told myself the biggest lie is, “this is who I am“. Is it? Or is it merely a learned response that I have practised so many times that it is now habitual?

It is hard to separate and differentiate between “who I am” and “how I habitually respond“.

Aristotle quote, We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

There is so much to unpack in these responses, as most of them are happening at a subconscious level – often in the Autonomic Nervous System (fight and flight responses or freeze).

One of my typical (physical) responses when I’m overwhelmed is “OMG, I’m so tired” (what my body does as parasympathetic shutdown – freeze). I know that this is one of the ways that I will try to dissociate. So, I’ve learned new ways to respond to this message.

As I’ve shared before, I will typically do this posture exercise to put myself back into a calm, present and alert state:

  1. I start by hunching my shoulders forward and letting my head drop as if I were going to sleep sitting up.
  2. I stand up, bring my arms up and out, open my chest, put my head up, and look skyward (yes, part of the video).
  3. Then I allow my arms to fall and sit normally and upright. Totally present.
fetal position, stretching, posture, sitting up straight,

Then, you can use a specific body hack to send a new message to your brain and body that reminds it that you are fully awake rather than tired!

Once I’m fully awake and present, I have to face whatever is stressing me out!

The challenge of being present

If well-being is an inside job, I want to build the daily habits and practices that contribute to my happiness. One of the challenges is facing each day and whatever it might bring.

This week brings difficulties with Celiac Disease. I allowed myself to get cross-contaminated last week, and now my system is inflamed. Nonetheless, I am still getting good sleep, and my gut is relatively settled. My biggest challenge is reining my irritability and noticing that “I’m irritable – other people are not irritating me!

The challenges of being a single mother

This is particularly true with little-miss-8, who decided it would be a great idea to reorganise her closet and drawers. She dumped all the clothes out onto the floor, and… in typical 8-year-old fashion, that’s as far as she got!

Am I pissed?
Yes!
Did I foresee this “getting stuck halfway through the task?”
Yes!
And what will I do about it? Nothing.

I called the 16-year-old neighbour and asked her to come over on Saturday and help with the cleanup!

I don’t have the patience this week to do it with her. I’m not going to risk saying something I don’t mean because I got glutened, and my nervous system is on “high alert”.

I can be horribly toxic when irritable, and she doesn’t deserve that. So, getting someone else in is how I work around it! I ask for help and support (and pay for it).

The blame game

Do I blame myself for being irritable? No, this is just a physiological response to inflammation.

I blame myself for being too polite last week and not asking to check the ingredients myself of the pasta sauce used with my rice vermicelli. I know better.

At the same time, I’m not wasting another moment blaming myself and dwelling on this mistake. I have much better things to do this week, despite my irritability!

Moving forward: what am I building?

Everything happens at this moment – now. It’s the only moment I have, and it’s the only moment you have.

  • My health and wellness can only be fixed by today’s choices, not yesterday’s or tomorrow’s. What am I eating and drinking? How will I choose movement rather than staying sedentary?
  • In the same way, my business and financial well-being can only be managed today. I can make plans for the future, but I can only execute them in the present. What am I working on today?

This applies even to my healing journey. I’m only focusing on healing whatever interferes with me being present “in the now”, as it arises. And that’s the beauty of the self-awareness I’ve built over the last two years.

While I might not be very good at staying present, I notice quickly when I’ve “checked out”, and I’m getting better at bringing myself back!

What have you become aware of these last two years?

One comment

  1. Interesting post. As we are reading the same book, I also have to point out that some people also tend to leave some wounds untreated or open. Therefore, some people just don’t want to be fully healed. As we talked about in our book club, they need that to feel alive. You, on the other hand, have decided to move on, which is excellent. As your exercise shows, healing is about dealing with the pain, not sweeping it under the rug.

    We all get irritable at some point. I know that in your particular case right now it is because you ate something you shouldn’t have eaten. I agree that you shouldn’t make a big deal out of anything right now, so chill and let your body do its thing. Catch you tomorrow!

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