It is not the past that affects us, but what the past says about us

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Robert Maurer
@robertmaurer
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“It is impossible for the past to distress you. What is past is foreclosed. All our anxieties are in the present and the only thing that can distress us is the future ”, writes Igor Sibaldi, thus shifting attention from the past to the present, from the immovable to what we can change.

There is no doubt that the past can become a heavy burden that prevents us from moving forward or keeps us paralyzed at a point on our path marked by feelings such as guilt, sadness and / or resentment. We cannot go back to the past to change it. What's done is done. But what really bothers and blocks us - even if we have a hard time recognizing it - is not the past itself, but what the past says about us is what that past brings into the present.



Our brain is "anchored" to the past

The only past that blocks us is the one we cannot accept. A study conducted at Harvard University showed that when we live in a very stressful situation, those experiences remain etched in the brain.

These neuroscientists asked people who had suffered psychological trauma to hear a description of what had happened to them while, in the meantime, their brains were being scanned. They found that when people relived the past, certain parts of their brains became activated, especially the amygdala, the fear center, and the visual cortex. But they also found that Broca's area, responsible for language, was deactivated.

This means that when we live a very intense emotionally situation and look to the past, we relive it as if it were real, we experience the same emotions again with the same intensity, because we were unable to accept it and transform it into a narrative experience. .



Transforming the past into a narrative experience means giving it meaning and incorporating it into our life story. This allows us to move forward. Nonetheless, we often get stuck in that past because we fail to integrate into our "I" what that experience says about us.

When we don't want to accept parts of ourselves

Cognitive dissonance implies a conflict in our system of ideas and beliefs, an incompatibility between two simultaneous cognitions. It is an internal inconsistency between the image we have of ourselves and the new image that the experience has aroused.

When a situation from the past involves a change in the way we see ourselves, it's harder to accept. If we have violated our norms, our values ​​and our beliefs, we find it very difficult to assume the split generated in the ideal self that we have built.

In 1980, Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of New Jersey, discovered that we tend to see ourselves in a very positive light, so positive that it affects probabilities to the point of causing us to generate unrealistic expectations about ourselves.

In his studies he saw, for example, that people believed they were less likely to develop an addiction than others and, at the same time, more likely to reach old age in good health than the rest of their contemporaries.

This means that we can see ourselves in an overly optimistic light, which prevents us from accepting our shadows. Perhaps that past forces us to accept that we are not as sincere, empathetic, selfless and / or strong as we thought.


When a situation brings out these shadows, it is difficult to accept, because it involves a change in the image of our "I", which means rethinking who we really are and understanding that we are not perfect or good as we thought.


Accepting our shadows isn't easy, but it's the only way to truly know ourselves. It is an inner journey that we must all undertake and that will allow us to free ourselves from the weight of our past, accepting our mistakes, our weaknesses and our inconsistencies.


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