Our Relationship With Our Past

By Joeel A. Rivera, M.Ed.

We all have a past, and some would say we all carry baggage because of it. We are quick to think of ways to get rid of the baggage that we perceive as holding us back, which in many ways is great. However, what if we have gotten it all wrong? What if we are trying to get rid of our road map for life? It’s like asking a boat captain to get rid of the sail on his boat in order to lighten the load. Many people get caught up in this cycle of finding ways to improve their life by repressing or releasing the past. However, the only thing that they are doing is chasing a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. It sounds great in the fable but what if we found out that the pot of gold has always been right where we are standing?

We can never change our past; but we can change the relationship that we have with it.

Yes, I said relationship! Because there is no relationship more powerful then the one that we have with our past. This relationship will color the perspective of our future, career, family, friends, and intimate relationships. Everything we do, from the way we communicate to how we show love, is influenced by the relationship that we have with our past.

It’s not what happened in our past that matters, its how we see it and what we do with it. Most people go to one extreme or the other with their relationship with their past. Either they have no relationship with it—they ignore it and do not give a second thought to how it impacts their life—or they live in it—they identify so strongly with the story of their life that they simply live out the patterns and roles they have learned. Most people run from it or are trapped by it, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Anyone who has ever achieved greatness, whether it was at business or developing a great relationship, has experienced failure or turmoil in their past. So, why is it that some people are ruined by the pain in their past, while others use it as fuel to achieve greatness?

What separates those who achieve and those that don’t is the perspective they have of their experience.

Perhaps we can gain perspective on our past by understanding the growth of Chinese bamboo. You’ve probably heard that bamboo grows quickly. But, if you ever buy this type of bamboo, and do not understand its growth process, you may get frustrated with it. In the first couple years the bamboo has minimal growth. You may wonder what is wrong with the bamboo or what you are doing wrong.  However, after about 4-5 years something astonishing happens; the bamboo can grow up to 60 feet in one year. This growth is possible because throughout those early years the bamboo was creating the rooting system that would support this kind of growth. The same thing happens for us.

Every experience, whether positive or negative, creates the rooting system that gives us the foundation on which to build our greatness.

Often we focus on how to cut out the roots we don’t like without understanding the value that they have. Much like when we happen across a road block in life, occasionally a root will hit a rocky area that it cannot grow through. Unlike us, nature accepts these obstacles, simply stops feeding that root or finds ways to continue to grow around the obstacle. The bamboo does not feel the need to remove part of its foundation or pretend it isn’t there. It also doesn’t spend its life cursing the faulty root or creating a victim story out of it. The relationship we choose to have with these rocks and roots in our past will either empower our growth or hold us back.

How to change your relationship with your past:

  • First, make a list of the experiences from your past that you believe were defining moments, especially the ones you feel were negative or painful.
  • Second, for each of these experiences, make a list of the positive results or experiences that have come from (or could come from) them, directly or indirectly.

It can be difficult to see the silver lining, such as understanding how anything good came out of victimization. But, even the worst experiences can lead to healing, growth, and purpose. For example, if you experienced something traumatic and found a way to create a positive outcome, you can help others through their experience and at the same time find a purpose to your pain. Helping another feel that they are not alone, or perhaps even helping prevent someone else from experiencing the same fate, can give be healing and empowering. Once we can truly see the blessing within our experience, or are open to finding them, our relationship with our past is changed forever.

I have come to realize that everything that I saw as a curse in my youth has actually served me, and others, in ways that at the time I could never have imagined. Who would have thought that those perceived curses would turn out to be the biggest blessings in my life?

Your past does not make you who you are; your relationship with your past does.

Joeel A. Rivera, M.Ed.

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