NOTE: This post was originally published on my previous blog, The Healing Project.
You’re probably familiar with the expression, “my past came back to haunt me,” and you likely have some personal examples related to this phrase. While it is always good to live in the present and embrace “the power of now,” do we ever fully escape our pasts? Can we truly be free of our mistakes and poor behavior of years gone by?
This post will focus on our so-called “sins of the past” and how they affect our lives in the present time. I will relate personal examples pertaining to my past relationships and physical health, and do my best to provide useful insights and suggestions for letting go of regrets and repercussions from the past.
Reminiscing… Or Not?
A few months ago, I wrote about going through boxes of old mementoes in preparation for moving and vacating our storage unit. These boxes included old cards and letters from many years ago (as long as 20-30 years back!) that I hadn’t looked at in a very long time. While I found it both interesting and exciting to look back and reminisce, the process also illuminated some personal history that was surprising and painful to remember.
While I consider myself a compassionate and thoughtful person today, I haven’t always been so kind. In fact, I treated some significant people in my life very poorly in years past. I wasn’t malicious or evil by any means, but I was driven by fear and selfishness. As I’ve mentioned previously, I suffered from depression and eating disorders for the bigger part of a quarter century, beginning in my early teens. During that time, I was extremely self-absorbed and far more concerned with my own wants and needs than those of others. I often had a negative attitude and I allowed my bad moods to affect those closest to me. Suffice it to say, I wasn’t always a “picnic” to be around.
We Can’t Turn Back the Clock
As I’ve matured and taken more responsibility for my own happiness, I have become increasingly more considerate toward those around me. Although I sometimes wish I could turn back the clock and treat my past close ones with more honor and respect, I know this is not possible. I know I have to let go of the lingering guilt and move on, especially in regards to those to whom making amends is impossible due to either death or disconnection.
My past sins also extend to the way in which I treated my body and health. For many years, I starved myself, over-exercised, purged, and engaged in other harmful behaviors. I pursued thinness relentlessly without much thought to how it would affect my current or future health. When I finally emerged from my long battle with eating disorders in my mid-thirties, I believed that I was relatively unscathed in terms of my health. Sure, I had experienced various digestive complaints over the years, but I thought those would surely subside with better eating and lifestyle habits.
Fast-forward to the present time… My digestive tract is a mess and I’ve recently had to drastically change my eating habits in the hope of managing my conditions without lifelong medication. I’ve suffered from migraine headaches for twenty five years and I’ve endured a variety of other physical complaints that have caused me a great deal of distress. I am beginning to wonder to what degree my past “health sins” are responsible for the current state of affairs.
Hindsight is 20/20
As the old saying goes, “If I had it to do over again, I would do it all differently.” Of course I would, as would many of you if you could be young again knowing what you know now. Unfortunately, we can’t do that, so we need to make peace with the past and forgive ourselves. But how do we do that? That’s the $64,000 question!
I don’t profess to have all the answers, but I have learned a few things along the way. I’ve learned that beating myself up because I used to abuse my body and my loved ones hasn’t helped me to feel better. On the contrary, my self-flagellation has only served to make me feel worse about myself and my life. I’ve learned to ask myself whether or not a particular line of thinking is serving me. If the answer is no, I do my best to consciously shift to a more productive thought pattern.
Finding the Lessons from Pain
One thing I’ve found helpful is to search for the lessons I can take from past experiences. Gaining awareness and self-knowledge from painful memories can create alternate meaning beyond the regret and heartache. It can be helpful to either journal about the lesson or discuss it with a caring friend or family member (or a therapist). It can also be fulfilling to share lessons learned with the young people in our lives, with the hope of potentially sparing them from pain.
The Perils of Self-Pity
It can be compelling to feel sorry for ourselves when we are going through challenging times. The drive to ask “Why me?” is common, but it is not helpful. When I had a serious recurrence of my digestive issues two months ago, I became angry, especially when I read that I didn’t fit the common profile for this disorder. I considered myself unlucky and lamented my misfortune. However, that train of thought only pushed me further into despair. It quickly became obvious that I needed to pull myself from the abyss and face my challenges head on.
Blaming ourselves or feeling sorry for ourselves isn’t useful. I’ve had to forgive myself for the ways in which I mistreated others and myself during my earlier years. While it’s true that I may be physically ill today as a result of my misguided actions of yesteryear, I had no way of knowing I was causing myself lasting damage. Sometimes the “whys” of given situations are immaterial. The most important question we can ask is, “What now?” This question puts us in the driver’s seat and propels us to take action to move us to a better and more empowered place.
We Are All Products of Our Pasts
We all have our “sins of the past,” but our past history and what we’ve learned from it is what has made us who we are today. We are each a product of our past, sins and all. I am happy to say that I like the person I am now, and I know that my current challenges will bring more lessons and only serve to make me stronger in the future.
I am gradually forgiving myself for the past and learning to live in the present moment, the space where all of our power exists. All we have is the here and now, and what’s done is done. Let’s learn what we can from the past and then let it go so that we can create a compelling and empowered future for ourselves!