A Difficult Past: Can One Move Truly Move On?
I rarely meet a person these days who doesn’t have a story to tell: a story of neglect and abuse, a story of poverty, a story of a broken family, a story of being bullied and harrassed while growing up… The stories are all different but the theme is the same: A past that is only remembered as painful and scarring. A past that haunts dreams and stalks daytime happiness. A past that seems to sabotage the present at every turn.
I used to be a woman who’s identity was based on my past. I was a victim, not a survivor. I was broken, not strengthened. I was angry, not forgiving. I clung to that identity. I didn’t want to let it go. I wasn’t sure what I would do with a new identity, separate from my past, so I clung to the only one I was familiar with, even when it kept me from moving on with my life.
Because I had been abused, I viewed everyone with suspicion. I expected only betrayal and had no room in my heart for love. In some warped way, I would find people who would only serve to fulfill my life philosophy that no one could be trusted and everyone was out to hurt you. If they didn’t bring it to pass on their own I would push them to their limits by my behavior until the only thing they could do was step away from my life in an effort to protect themselves from my anger and bitterness. As they withdrew, I couldn’t see they were doing it because of my actions — in my world, they were doing it because they were like “everyone else.”
Living like this caused my past to blend into my present until they were one and the same. I could not comprehend a life in which the one did not affect the other. I didn’t believe that I could move beyond the past and step into a future that was radically different.
That is, until I met others who had successfully done so; people who, by rights, should have been in jail, or curled up in psych wards, or worse, dead. I learned from them. I learned that my past could explain some things but it didn’t have to dictate who I was.
Slowly, I implemented what I read in books and saw modeled in other people’s lives and the day came when I knew the last chain to my past had fallen away and I had stepped into the present, completely free to enjoy it. Now, in my thirties, I am living the best years of my life. It’s sad that I spent so many years living with the identity I lived with, walled up with unforgiveness and anger, but like everything else, I am only taking that as a lesson to be learned and not letting it affect today.
Don’t own other people’s ugliness.
A common lie that is held as absolute truth in an abuse survivor’s mind is, “There must be something wrong with me that caused that person to do what they did to me.” One of the first things a person has to do to move from victim to survivor is let that lie go.
Your spouse had an anger problem, that’s why he beat the crap out of you. You were not a bad wife!
Your uncle was a sick man. You were not a dirty little girl who enticed him!
Your mother was selfish and could only think of herself when she walked out. Your behavior is not what made her go away!
Nothing you have ever done could warrant the abuse or abandonment you experienced. Nothing! It was not your fault.
Let me repeat that. Nothing you have ever done could warrant the abuse or abandonment you experienced. Nothing! It was not your fault.
If you have to repeat that to yourself one hundred times a day and write it out and post it all over your house, do it! Do it until you believe it.
When we believe that we’re dirty, or ugly, or annoying, or bad, or a burden, we often act that way. We act on what we believe.
I used to believe I was unlovable and dirty. I “cleaned” myself by constantly purging my food whenever I ate and by cutting myself as punishment. I acted unlovable by lashing out at all those who dared to love me. It was when I finally faced the truth that I was not dirty and that I was worthy of being loved that I began to act as if I was a respectable and lovable human being.
You will always act out what you believe. Start believing the truth!
You are not (fill in the blank).
Just because your dad drank himself into oblivion does not mean that you are inevitably destined to do the same thing. The fact that your mom concocted up horrifying physical abuse does not mean you are going to abuse your children. Being sexually abused doesn’t mean you are a sexual abuser. Being the child of a crack addict doesn’t mean you are a crack addict.
Let those in your past be who they are, but don’t own their identity as your identity. Separate yourself from those who hurt you. Determine who you are and who you want to be instead.
Learn from your past.
If anything, the pain of our past teaches us what we don’t want to be and what we don’t want to do. Instead of being haunted by the memories, take the strength of them and use them for change in your own life. This often takes the help of a therapist or minister because old patterns and roles are hard to break and new ones are even harder to learn, but you can do it. Find a new role, a new way of life, based on what you don’t want your life to be like.
Forgiving is an extremely difficult thing to accomplish, but it is essential to being able to move beyond your past. When we don’t forgive those who hurt us so badly in the past, we only succeed in dragging them with us into our future. Forgive, release, and move forward.
Break off unhealthy relationships.
Sometimes when we forgive, the healthiest and safest thing we can do is to break off relationships with those who hurt us. Doing this can overwhelm us with guilt, especially when the people we break relationships off with proclaim loudly to anyone who will listen that we have estranged ourselves from them, and “they just don’t know why.” However, in many cases, it is an absolute must.
To keep up unhealthy relationships often results in more abuse, and if not abuse, then at least the continuance of unhealthy patterns of behavior and dysfunctional roles.
Sometimes a period of distance and separation can be all that is needed for a new and healthy relationship to form in the future, but this is not always the case. If it is the case, beware of trying to form the relationship sooner than later. It’s better to err on the side of time than it is to jump back in prematurely and find yourself right back in an unhealthy relationship.
Know that the past shapes us, but it doesn’t determine who we are.
When I was able to move beyond my identity as a victim and see myself instead as a survivor, a powerful thing happened in my life. I was able to look at my past and say, “This happened to me. It was painful. It almost destroyed me. It explains some of the choices I made. But it’s not who I am and it’s not what my life is going to be like.”
My past explained my life, but it wasn’t my excuse. When I think back on some of the things I have gone through, I get tears in my eyes. The thing is, they are no longer tears of martyrdom and self-destruction, but rather tears of grieving what should not have been. I grieve the innocence I lost. I grieve the hurt I had to go through. But I no longer wear it as a banner of identity.
I choose instead to wear survival and victory. I choose to have a face alight with love and forgiveness, not hate and anger. I am realistic to know that there will be more hurt in my life, but I also have the confidence that I will get beyond it. I live with a discernment that there are evil people out there and I can’t give away my trust too readily, yet at the same time, I no longer wall people out at all costs. Love is risky, but it’s a risk worth taking.
My past is a tool that shaped me, but it is not my definition. It shaped me into a woman of strength and integrity, courage and hope. Instead of holding me back from my future, my past has pushed me into my present — a present full of healing, joy, and love.
Let your past push you forward as well, not hold you back.