Separating the Past from the Present

We are all products of our upbringing to a large extent. However, that product is not “as is” nor is it unchangeable. We require the knowledge of how our upbringing affected us so we know what are the areas that we need to focus on. However, once those insights have been attained, anything is possible afterward. We can unlearn negative ways of relating with the world, others, and God. Our fears can dissipate, closure attained from losses, and a peaceful heart obtained.  We not only heal from past painful experiences, but grow from them. The proverbial silver lining can be found as we find ourselves more resilient, insightful, self-aware, and discerning.

Try as we might, trying to merely will away past painful experiences is not effective nor realistic. Our minds were not created in a way to make that strategy of avoidance effective. Our God given minds have a need for closure and mastery over experiences. We can try and tell ourselves a story that we have left behind a certain experience and never needed to process it, but that is rarely the case. The unconscious mind is powerful and keeps a memory of experiences. We even have emotional memories. If these experiences are not processed and worked through, we will develop what is called triggers. A trigger is something in the present that activates powerful reactions or emotions related to a past event that is unresolved. A trigger could be a something that someone else does or says, a perceived criticism, anger in another person, conflict, or an event we can’t control. These are but a few examples and there are many more. These triggers are but one of the many ways our pain or past unresolved experiences can come out “side-ways” if we do not deal with them head on and consciously. Unresolved past experiences, especially past losses, frequently manifest themselves in dreams, in ways that are different for each one of us. When avoiding resolving a past experience that needs addressing, we might find ourselves experiencing somatic symptoms. Somatic symptoms might be physical ailments; aches, pains, fatigue or other mysterious physical symptoms that while felt physically, have psychological causes. It is the mind letting us know something is amiss. Our unconscious mind will come knocking, reminding us that something needs closure.

When we are triggered by something in the present that activates feelings tied to a past event or relationship; it is called a transference. Transference is when the past gets imposed on present and we perceive or interpret a present event through the lens of the past. Typically, when we have a disproportionate reaction to an event or occurrence, it is evidence of a transference occurring. In a transference we are re-enacting the past in the present which is often destructive. Cognitively, we convince ourselves it is the present event that is making us so upset, however our emotions are coming from the past. When a transference is occurring, we can feel as though the past is happening all over again.

We can also engage in something called re-enactments. Re-enactments are a type of transference. A re-enactment is when we keep repeating the same behaviors or reactions in relationships. We think we are responding to something or someone in the present, but we are really responding to an unresolved past experience or relationship. Re-enactments are repetitive and can be damaging to our life. When we engage in them, we often end up creating the very thing we sought to avoid. For example, by over-reacting to situations or others, we create a counter-response which can lead to conflict. We can cause problems that could have been easily managed to worsen.  Re-enactments can also have different functions or purposes. Some suspect re-enactments are engaged in, in order to gain a sense of mastery over a past traumatic event or relationship. Some re-enactments are defensive in nature, i.e. they serve to protect us from ever having to have certain experiences again. Finally, some re-enactments might simply be the result of learned behavior or conditioning. Our neural pathways were, in the past, wired to respond in certain ways to certain situations. However, neural pathways can be “rewritten” due to something called neural plasticity. God created us this way so we can change.

When  we work to identify all of the transference and ways in which our unresolved hurt is coming out side-ways, we will be working to separate the past from the present. Once the past unresolved event or relationship has been identified than we begin to do the work we were not able to do in the past. This will mean talking about the event such as what occurred, what it meant to us, how it made us feel, and how it has affected us in the present. The last part is critical in separating the past from the present.

Time and time again we see it demonstrated, that once the painful experience or difficult experience has been worked through and processed, the “side-ways” symptoms dramatically improve or disappear completely.

About Fr. Joshua Makoul

Fr. Joshua Makoul has been serving as the Dean of St. George Cathedral in Pittsburgh since 2012. Before that time, Fr. Joshua worked in the Counseling Field for 16 years. This involved work in a family-based, school-based, and an outpatient setting. Fr. Joshua received two years of training in family therapy at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Center and completed a one year certificate course in Cognitive Behavior Therapy at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. During his last six years working in a small outpatient group, he was supervised by Dr. Jesus Salas who supervises at the Beck Institute in Philadelphia. Fr. Joshua received his Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia and his Bachelors in Psychology from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. He is licensed in the state of Pennsylvania for counseling. For seminary he attended Holy Cross Seminary in Boston and received an M.Div.

One comment:

  1. Fr Joshua, I am a new reader to your site and an Orthodox Christian. Your posts are powerful , and this one struck a chord. Could you please suggest specific resources to help with these symptoms? Thank you.
    In Christ,

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