Excerpt from Typhoon Honey: The Only Way Out Is Through (Girrell & Sjogren): "You Are Not Your Past"
You are not your past
When you are asked to describe yourself, you probably do what most of us do and describe your history of experiences, roles, and accomplishments. Those are the things through which we build a self-concept. As a child, perhaps you were a fast runner, or maybe you were the last kid picked. Whichever was the case, your mind made up a story about the meaning of those things. You identified as a certain gender (or perhaps as none). You were good at math and sciences or maybe hated writing. The list goes on. These experiences eventually built up into an icon of who you see as yourself. It is how you know yourself. But that is not who you are—not in the least. Most of what we think is our past are not the events of our lives but the memories we have about them.
A friend of ours (we’ll call her Rachel) was physically and sexually abused by an adult neighbor as a thirteen-year-old girl. It was a horrible and degrading set of experiences that no one should ever have to experience and she has our deepest compassion for having survived. Worst yet, it lasted for more than a year. But the problem that was associated with that was that she felt that she had become worthless, that she was trash and just something to be used by others. As the result of this horrible event, her teenage mind made up an explanation of how and why that could have happened. Strangely, as is often the case, her first thoughts were not of the villain, the perpetrator, but of her value. She concluded that in order for anyone to treat another person like trash, that person must be trash-like. She just internalized the feelings and made the whole thing about her lack of worth. It probably didn’t help much that her mother didn’t believe her and called her a whore when she finally did talk about it.
Though quite attractive as an adult woman, Rachel never dated men she was attracted to and often felt that she wasn’t really liked by any of her boyfriends. She dropped out of college and married the last of her many college boyfriends because she was pregnant. Now, with four grown children leaving home to pursue their own careers, she is beaten and depressed. It was not until someone she respected (her coach) got her to see how beautiful she was as a person and how he marveled at the loving way she parented her children and treated others around her that she began to think that perhaps she was not damaged goods. But digging out from under a strongly held self-concept is a long process.
No matter what happened in your past, even the most horrible of abuses or conditions of poverty, your memory of those events and how you interpreted those events are not the events. What happened to Rachel was deplorable, but what she learned as a result of trying to figure it all out was a story that shaped her life for the next thirty or forty years. Your past cannot be changed but the story can. That does not mean that you become suddenly happy about the past and make up a fairy tale about some awful event in the past was good. Rather, it means that you can question, inspect, and reinterpret those events from the perspective of the adult you have become. Because you were the last kid picked as a nine-year-old does not mean you are a loser. It may have been that your body did not mature as quickly as the others and they just wanted the bigger or stronger kids first—kids like to win! It meant nothing about you. Their choice was based on their desires and thoughts about winning. Because your dad took a belt to your backside every time he was in a foul mood did not mean that you deserved to be abused. It means your father, though trying to cope as best he could, was abusive. And no child deserves to be abused. But you are not a child today, and the decisions you make today are your own, not your father’s, and certainly not the story and interpretation of the five-year-old version of you.
Your past is a set of events that occurred (or at least you thought they occurred) a certain way, but your story most often will not be a mature evaluation and interpretation of those events. This same distinction is true for current events as well. You may be in a relationship that turned sour gradually over the past months or years. And lately it feels like it is dragging you down. In moments like this, it is important to distinguish between what is happening and what you are interpreting about what is happening. They are two separate things. It’s like saying rainy days are downers, as we said before. Because it is gloomy outside doesn’t mean you have to be gloomy. Likewise, a destructive or dysfunctional relationship does not have to mean you are dysfunctional. Later we will address how we can be the source of some of those less desirable things and events in our lives (and what you can do about that), but for now, we just want to underscore the idea that your story about a situation is different from the situation itself, whether that is in the past or happening right now. Stories can take on a life of their own and when we find ourselves reacting to the story instead of dealing with the reality it can have undesired results.
When I was four, my family lived in the army housing on a base near Stuttgart, Germany. The kids of those families had no real playgrounds and often ended up playing on the sidewalks and steps outside the long, four-story apartment buildings. As I recall those days, I had always had this vivid memory of a terrible day. I was playing with some toy about which I was quite possessive. The other kids started taunting and teasing me calling him names like “stingy” and such. Frustrated and angered by their teasing, I looked around where I was on the stoop. On either side of the three steps leading down to the sidewalk was a low curb made of bricks and half of one of those bricks was loose and not connected to the mortar around it. In my rage, I vividly recall picking up the brick and throwing it at one of the kids. It hit him on the side of the head and he immediately began bleeding profusely. I got so scared that I ran in and hid under the table in the kitchen. It was as vivid a memory as an adult as it was when it “happened.”
That evening I called my sister (the lord and protector of her little brother back in Germany), and asked her about the event (she would have been six at the time and perhaps could recall it). She told me that she had remembered the kids teasing me and she recalled a time when I hid from them under the table for some reason, but she had no recollection of the brick. So I called my mom with the same question. What she said absolutely floored me. She said that all the moms in the barracks were always in conversation with each other, all the time. If anything like that would have happened, not only would she have known about it, all the moms would know it and would have been talking about it for weeks. “No,” was her answer, “That could never have happened.”
What did happen was a scared and upset four-year-old boy had so much rage inside himself that he wanted to throw a brick and saw that happening as a thought or fantasy, and that thought had lodged in my mind as fact and hardened into a construct for the next four decades. I neither threw the brick (nor could have the athleticism to throw it and hit a target) nor had I injured the other boy. I only wanted to and thought about it. All of my life I had been so certain that it was a fact. The memory of the event was so vivid. And yet, it never happened.”
We wager that the two of us are not the only ones who have ever done such a thing. We urge you to begin questioning the interpretations you have about yourself. Of course, we mean only the negative and self-deprecating stories. Please don’t discard such beliefs as “I am a beloved child of the Divine” or other strong and empowering beliefs! But some of that old, smelly stuff in your brain needs to be challenged and overturned. You will not believe how freeing that can be.
Changing Your History Story
Here is a fun exercise to repackage your history, your interpretations of your historical events that have become the story you perpetuate.
- With a group of trusted friends (it takes at least five other people to do this exercise) have each person write down the three most life-defining events you’ve experienced— good, bad or ugly, it doesn’t matter.
- Pair up and in front of the first person tell that person what happened in each event (try to be brief by keeping to a two-minute time limit).
- Switch to a new partner and tell all three events as though they were the worst things that could have ever happened to anyone—even if the event was positive!
- Switch again and this time tell the story as though you were a reporter on the evening news. Give the facts almost with a monotone and dispassionate matter-of-factness.
- Switch to a new partner and tell the same three events like Pollyanna would. “My mom locked me in the closet, but it was really nice because I learned how to read in the dark and I felt so cozy there.”
- Switch to the final partner and tell the three events in a language that has never been spoken on the Planet Earth before. But make certain that you are in fact telling the stories—just in gobbledygook.
- When everyone has completed, have each person tell about their events but notice how the events have become just a story. They no longer live as “life-changing” events—they are just stories.
Our life-defining events are not about the event but rather the interpretations we have added to the events. But like my brick story, they take on a powerful role in defining us throughout our lives. But we learn in this process that it is our interpretation story that has all the impact. This storytelling process is sometimes used in treating PTSD for combat veterans. They are asked to tell the horrifying event(s) to their group. Then they are asked to tell it again and again, over and over, until it has become a story to them, and has lost its immense emotional charge.
When you reach the point where the story can be told without it having an impact on you and your emotions (and it will, with enough practice), you are ready to lay the story down and move on to writing your next chapter.
For other posts about the authors and their book, click HERE.