As a therapist and a human being, I’ve always struggled with knowing what the balance looks like between looking to the past to understand ourselves and our hurts, and living in the present moment. It’s probably one of the most difficult balances to navigate in the healing journey. I have had many moments where I spent so much time mentally re-living my childhood, ruminating on all my hurts, anger, and painful memories, that it left me feeling emotionally consumed by it all. It would feel as if I was that same little child re-experiencing the hurts again and again. This obviously isn’t healthy and it left me feeling very disconnected from the present moment. But I have also seen the other extreme where many of the clients I have worked with, live blindly, with very little awareness of how huge an impact their early childhood experiences, and family dynamics have played in shaping themselves and their life choices. They inevitably end up unconsciously repeating the same unhealthy cycles and patterns again and again in their own lives. This isn’t healthy either.
So here is the difficult balance: On one hand, if we spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror, we can easily get stuck in the past and miss what God is doing in our lives right in this moment. We run the risk of giving more power to the past than it deserves. But, on the other hand, if we never look back out of fear of what we might find, or what emotions may surface, we run the risk of unconsciously carrying our past baggage with us and letting it play a HUGE and unhealthy role in how we live, feel, love and interact with others.
So how do we work through past pain in healthy ways and balance all of this?
I remember asking my supervisor this same question when I was in Graduate School studying to get my Counseling degree. I was struggling with knowing whether talking and thinking about the past was healthy for my clients. (And I also wanted to know for my own personal healing too). He really simplified this complex balance for me. He said, “We look back so we can understand ourselves in the present moment, and we look ahead only so we can understand what we need to do now in order to get there. Everything has to be brought back into the light of the present moment.” What he was basically saying is that we don’t look back to the past just for the sake of looking back to the past. And we don’t spend time looking ahead to the future just for the sake of looking towards the future. It all depends on what we are trying to learn and understand in the present moment.
For example: If I am struggling in my marriage and I look back to see what my earliest example of marriage looked like, and I find some unhealthy patterns that I am reliving in my own marriage, this information and newfound awareness should help me to improve myself in the present moment. It should help me to work on myself, so I can heal and become a healthier spouse. But, if I am looking back so that I can get angry and blame my parents for showing me such a dysfunctional example of marriage, and I end up continuing to repeat the same unhealthy example I was shown, then how has this aided in my healing in the present moment? Looking back with the intention of growing, healing and understanding, should always lead us to desiring to better ourselves in THIS PRESENT MOMENT OF TIME. After all, the present moment is where we encounter Jesus.
So a healthy question to ask ourselves when we are finding ourselves replaying moments from the past or reflecting on past pain is this: What is my intention in looking back? Is it to get myself all worked up and angry again? Is it to ruminate over past resentments? Or is it to find more clarity? To seek more freedom and understanding? To see how God was with us and working in our lives, even in those painful moments? We have to be honest with what our intention truly is, because the intention behind why we do what we do will determine everything.
What am I trying to find?
I have had a ton of personal therapy over the years to find healing from past hurts, and this personal journey of healing has involved a lot of prayer, reflection and journaling. So much of it has been fruitful and liberating, but there have been many moments where my reflection time has resulted in greater distress or tireless rumination. As I have become more emotionally aware, I have started to pay attention to the difference between those prayerful moments of reflection that led to greater freedom and healing, and those other moments of reflection that left me feeling more restless and stuck. What I have realized is that it all comes back to what I was looking for in those moments, and the disposition of my heart.
If I entered into my past memories with a pure desire to see what the Holy Spirit wanted to reveal to me, and see how God was present with me in those moments, I left those reflections with deeper peace. But, if I entered into my past memories trying to control the situation, and see things through the same hurt, angry, distorted lens that I was already seeing those memories with, then I left the reflection time feeling agitated and stuck. I realized in those moments that I wasn’t truly trying to find healing and make peace with the pain of those memories. My unconscious intention was to actually re-hash the same injustices, so that I could continue to protect myself and justify my anger and bitterness. It was a very humbling and transforming revelation when I could recognize the difference in the disposition of my heart in these moments.
I think this is an essential question that we all have to consider in our healing journey, when we find ourselves looking back on past hurts and memories: What is the disposition of my heart? Is my heart open and seeking what God wants to reveal to me? Or is my heart hardened and wanting to replay all the ways I have been so badly treated? The disposition of our hearts will affect what we find, how much healing we receive and the fruit that we experience from this healing.
How am I keeping these hurts alive?
Awhile back I was feeling really stuck with different experiences of my childhood where unforgiveness had taken deep root in my heart. As I was praying for the grace to forgive and move on from these hurts, I started to reflect on how these things were impacting me, and what it was costing me to continue lugging around all these resentments. I decided to make a list titled, “How are my past hurts influencing/affecting my present life?” and this is what I came up with:
- Keeping me stuck.
- I am viewing things through a distorted lens.
- Keeps me from seeing/feeling how loved I truly am.
- Keeps me from appreciating what needs have been met and how generous people have been with me throughout my life.
- Makes me sad and makes me feel less loved than others.
- Creates anger when I spend time ruminating on the past/ feeds my bitterness.
- Makes me hypersensitive to what others are receiving/makes me feel like I get less.
- Creates an inability to be happy for the love/attention/blessings that others receive when I’m focused on all the ways I perceive myself being let down or loved poorly.
- Keeps me stuck in a mindset of comparison and envy. This is a vicious cycle.
- Keeps me from fully seeing how blessed I have been.
I also spent time reflecting on what my contribution was in keeping these past hurts alive:
- I choose to spend time rehearsing past hurts.
- I work myself up by getting angry over the same things.
- I choose to focus on the ways people have failed me, instead of seeing all the ways they have been there for me.
- I choose to compare myself with others.
- I choose to put my expectations and unmet needs onto others, and then get angry with them when they are left unfulfilled.
- I am continuing to expect others to give me what only Jesus can.
- I am refusing to let Jesus hold onto these hurts for me.
- I am closing myself off to Jesus’ healing power.
- I am not trusting in his ability to transform these hurts.
This time of reflecting on how I continued to feed the flames of my past hurts was really eye-opening and empowering for me. It allowed me to see my role in continuing to lug around my hurt, and how much time I spent blaming others for it. I realized I needed to start taking ownership of the changes I needed to make in my own life, so that I could move on and not remain so stuck emotionally. It allowed me to see that whatever hurts I experienced throughout my life, I did not have to remain victim to the pain. It gave me the opportunity to see that with all the things I couldn’t control as a child, there are MANY things I do have control over now as an adult. One of the most important things we now control as adults is what our response to our past pain will be. Will we allow our pain to be transformed by Jesus Christ? Will we allow our hurts to make us better people? Will we live lives of mercy, forgiveness and grace, or will we stay bitter, hurt and angry? We get to decide. Healing, forgiveness and letting go of past hurts takes a lot of grace. We don’t always get to control how fast we move past these things, but we do have a say in how much time we spend in prayer, asking Jesus for the grace to let the past finally remain in the past.
What is the fruit that is coming from this?
When we are struggling to know whether reflecting on the past is harming us or helping heal us, we can prayerfully ask, “What is the fruit that is coming from this?” If you are getting stuck in the past, your heart will tell you. You will feel the heaviness of the past, you will ruminate over and over again, you will get worked up over the same hurts, rejections and injustices you went through. You will feel re-injured and re-wounded by the experiences. You will feel stuck and weighed down.
If you are experiencing greater freedom from your time of prayer and reflection on your past, you will experience the fruits of the Holy Spirit. You will feel more peace, more understanding, more gentleness in your heart. You will have more compassion towards the ones who wounded you, as well as to yourself. You will feel less bitterness and pride in your heart. You will let go of feeling the need to control everything, because you will have deeper trust in God to provide for the needs of your heart. You will feel a weight lifted. You will feel a deeper intimacy with God. True healing always leads us closer to Jesus, always leaves us feeling more whole, and always inspires us to become more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “Manage your pain or it will manage you?” There’s some truth in that, but as Christians we aren’t just called to “manage” our pain. We know someone who can HEAL our pain. And He wants to. Jesus wants to heal our pain. He yearns to heal our pain. We aren’t called to gimp through life, weighed down and in constant pain. This is not the life Jesus promised us. So we need to ask ourselves what’s missing if that’s how we’re living.
I still have many moments when I find myself unexpectedly triggered by something. I still have past hurts and painful memories that I am trying to surrender into the Lord’s gentle hands. I still have to mentally ask myself some days, “what do you gain by hanging onto this hurt?” Jesus is still teaching me how to rest in the present moment. And it’s been a very painful journey trying to find a balance in all of this. Healing hurts. But I just want to offer hope for those that are tired of carrying around so much pain: There is freedom that awaits. There is joy. There are so many beautiful moments when you get to smile and see how God has been restoring you and transforming you. And that moment when we feel the embrace of God’s love sustaining us, it makes all the moments of pain and struggle worth it.
And for those of you that might feel terrified to even look at yourselves, or your hurts, because you fear what you might find or you worry you’ll be consumed by it all: Jesus knows what you can handle. He is a gentle God. He doesn’t grab us and throw us into the pain of everything. He doesn’t try to flood our minds with painful memories. He desires to take us by the hand and lead us to greater freedom. It’s not a journey He makes us walk alone, it’s a journey where He walks beside us…the entire way. If He allows us to feel hurt or to experience the sting of past pain, it’s never for the sake of re-wounding us, it is always for the sake of restoring and healing us. There are some things within us that can only be healed by feeling the pain. And in feeling it, we come to trust in the God that gives us the strength to withstand it and who has promised to transform it.
So as you continue to balance life and past hurts and everything in between, I pray for you the same prayer I pray for myself, that you would have the courage to keep letting Jesus complete the work He’s already begun in you 🙂
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6
2019 Drewe DeJesus
Photo by Etienne Boulanger from Freely Photos