Editor’s note: Claudia Black, PhD is a renowned addiction specialist and the author of several books addressing family systems and addiction issues. Her continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled The Addictive Family: The Legacy of Trauma, is scheduled for 9 a.m. Pacific Time on September 5, 2014. The event is available at no additional cost to GoodTherapy.org members and is good for two CE credits. For details, or to register, please click here.
It is true that as long as we live we may keep repeating the patterns established in childhood. It is true that the present is powerfully shaped by the past. But it is also true that insight at any age keeps us from singing the same sad songs again.
– Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses
Family-of-origin influences certainly seem destined to last a lifetime as we repeatedly fall easily into old family patterns. These old patterns may just feel comfortingly familiar and like the path of least resistance, but as Viorst points out, those “same sad songs” don’t have to be played on repeat. Following the four steps listed here will enable you to leave the past behind.
Explore Your Past
Exploring the past is not an exercise in assigning blame, but an opportunity to acknowledge the truth of what happened in our lives and experience the grief associated with our pain, rather than hiding or suppressing our wounds. There is no doubt denial was a skill that served us as children in survival mode, but denial, which begins as a defense, can eventually interfere with how we live our lives today. When we let go of denial and acknowledge the past, we find an opportunity to genuinely put the past behind us and continue with recovery.
Connect the Past to the Present
Ask yourself, “How does this past pain and loss influence who I am today?” “How does the past affect who I am as a parent, in the workplace, in relationship, and how I feel about myself?” Identifying the cause-and-effect relationship between our past losses and present lives gives us a sense of direction, and we can become more centered in the here and now. This clarity will identify the areas we need to work on.
Challenge Internalized Beliefs
Consider which of your beliefs about yourself were internalized from childhood. Are they helpful or hurtful to you today? Which beliefs would support you in living a healthier life?
We often internalize beliefs such as, “It is not okay to say no,” or “Other people’s needs are more important than my own,” or “The world owes me and I am entitled,” or “People will take advantage of me every chance they can.” When these beliefs get in the way of how we want to live our lives, we need to take responsibility for what we do with them. We need to let them go and create new beliefs to take their place.
Learn New Skills
Try to identify what kinds of skills would help you today that you may not have had an opportunity to learn in the past. You can also take a look at skills and behaviors you learned prematurely or developed out of fear or shame. These skills may be poorly developed, leaving you to feel like an imposter. Addressing the feelings and beliefs associated with the skill will make it possible to develop greater confidence in those skills.
The knowledge that comes in owning our past and connecting it to the present is vital in developing empathy and compassion for ourselves. It also helps us to reduce shame and refrain from holding ourselves accountable for the pain we have carried. Understanding that we have lived our lives as we have for good reason—not because there is something inherently wrong with who we are—is fuel for our ongoing healing. The change we want to create in our lives will be made directly as a result of both releasing self-defeating belief systems and learning new skills.
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