“Why drag up the past?”
“It’s ancient history”
“Don’t poke the bear.”
“Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus.” (For Harry Potter fans…)
When we think about recalling difficult or painful memories from our past, often these reactions are the ones we have. Sometimes in the therapy room, when we try to go to memories or situations that are painful to recall, clients ask for clarification on why digging up our ancient history is worth it.
To help them understand, I use a metaphor.
Imagine a wardrobe in your bedroom. This wardrobe has everything you’ve ever owned, worn or collected inside it. Any time you use or encounter something, into the wardrobe it goes. The wardrobe right now is bursting at the hinges. It’s full up, and you know it’s a mess in there, so there’s no way you’re going near it. You can see though, that if you don’t do something, the doors are going to burst open and everything will come spilling out.
So you decide to organise. You open the doors, and like you expected, everything comes spilling out. It’s so much worse than it was when it was contained. You pick up everything, remembering where it came from, when you wore it, who gave you the gift, and you place everything back neatly inside the wardrobe, this time arranging the shelves and hanging up things in a more ordered way, but with new knowledge of exactly what the wardrobe contains and where it is.
Therapy is a little like going through the wardrobe.
There might come a time in our lives when our past, the things that have happened to us, feels like it’s no longer able to be contained back there. We see tendrils of the past begin to spill out into our present, perhaps in depression, anxiety or other stresses associated with those memories.
We might say “There’s no point digging up the past” and be fearful of the moment when we open the doors to our minds, for the past we’ve worked hard to put behind us to come flooding back. It can feel like that moment on the bedroom floor, surrounded by all our possessions, “Why did I start this? It was easier when everything was contained!”
Tidying up our bedroom is unpleasant, and so too is this act of sifting through our history. Particularly if we are replaying or expressing extremely difficult or traumatic memories. So it’s important that we make sure we’re doing this in a safe way, where we feel held and supported by good friends or professionals.
It can be difficult, and maybe even a long process, but just like cleaning the wardrobe, as the past get sifted and sorted through, we can make sense of, arrange, categorise and make connections to the different events and moments of our lives. Making connections we may never have noticed before. We may have realisations that there are reasons why we act and react the way we do, buried deep in our memories.
Unlike doing a good clean out where we get rid of a few bin bags full, everything is going to stay in our head, our past after all, is our past. But after giving ourselves the chance to think through our history, with knowledge of what’s in there, we are more able to act with awareness, having faced the past, acknowledged it’s contents, and chosen to move forward in freedom. We are no longer acting beholden to unconscious motivations, but with full awareness of our actions and the ability to choose the best way forward for us.
Our past will always be our past, but in this act of sorting through it, from the vantage point of the present, perhaps we will discover a new way to see it.