When the Past Haunts

Worried woman sitting with laptopRecently, a co-worker left me with a question: “I was with a colleague and friend the other day and she is still haunted by a traumatic misuse of power from several years ago. She quit the nonprofit organization we both worked for over this situation. She wanted to know if it was too late to do anything about it. This conversation set me to thinking about what you can do with unresolved things from the past. What do you suggest?”

This is too big a question to speak to in its largest context, which includes unresolved hurt and trauma of all sorts, from family to community to organizational to cultural to global issues. However, I would like to offer a useful and personal process for looking at some choices. It is based on my model for ethical decision-making, called the Power Spiral. In this model, there are four dimensions of right use of power to consider: Information/Presence, Compassion/Awareness, Connectedness/Accountability, and Skillfulness/Wisdom. The purpose is to discern what action(s), right now, would be the wisest use of your power and influence.

In the Information/Presence dimension:

  • Why is this issue resurfacing now?
  • What is your present understanding, from an objective point of view, of what happened on the part of both you and the other(s)? Are there other sources of additional and relevant information?
  • Is there an ethics code or organizational guidelines that would be appropriate or useful to consult?

In the Compassion/Awareness dimension:

  • What, specifically, do you feel sad and upset about?
  • What might get in the way of resolution or repair in this process?
  • From a place of compassion for all concerned, what does your heart say?

In the Connectedness/Accountability dimension:

  • Is the person who caused the harm available for personal contact?
  • What would you need for repair of the situation?
  • What actions feel right or are you willing to take?

In the Skillfulness/Wisdom dimension:

  • How can you most skillfully do the actions that you are willing to take?
  • How and when will you let go?
  • What resources for support are available to you?

You may do this process alone, but likely more effective would be to invite a friend or colleague to be a listening and supportive presence while you think and feel your way through.

On a table or on the floor, put a brief statement of the situation you want to resolve in the center. Then place four pieces of paper with one of these words on each—information, compassion, connectedness, and skillfulness—in four directions around the center statement.

Now, as you respond to the questions for each dimension, imagine you have special glasses that help you see through the perspective of each. Let yourself receive what each dimension offers you, especially surprises, new feelings, or new possibilities. I suggest you literally move to each direction so you can more easily embody each perspective.

When you have completed this reflective process, take a moment to get in touch with your heart and your center or higher self and see if anything else comes to you.

The co-worker who brought me this question took this process to her colleague and friend and guided her through the four perspectives. Here’s what happened:

  • From the Information perspective, she understood that although there was an organizational ethics code, the misuse of power was a potent but subtle one that wasn’t specifically listed in the code. She also saw how old this event was and that there wasn’t much value in bringing it back to the organization: “Too much water over the dam.”
  • In the Compassion perspective, she felt how deeply she was “stuck” with the hurt and that it was she, herself, who might get in the way of healing because of being somehow attached to the pain. She also found, to her surprise, that she could feel the beginnings of her capacity to forgive.
  • From the Connectedness dimension, she didn’t know if the person who wounded her was available for contact, but she felt it was worth a try. She decided to contact her with the overall goal of some amount of healing. What she wanted to ask for was acknowledgement of her feelings, an understanding of what the other’s intentions were, an apology, and a sense of completion.
  • In the Skillfulness dimension, she decided that the wisest way to proceed would be to send an email simply asking if she would be available to talk or email about a painful situation from the past that she would like to understand more about and feel complete with. If the person responded positively, she would reconnect with heart and strength, keeping in mind that her goal was healing and letting go, not blame or punishment. If the other person was not available or did not respond, she would sit down with a friend and create a letting-go process.

I hope you find this useful.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • cameron

    January 4th, 2013 at 11:28 AM

    Often times one has been in a situation where it is too hard to face your demons, but at the same time even harder to leave them behind.
    I do think that there is a way to leave them in the oast but not before confronting that which hurt you so much and putting it to rest for good.
    Many people are afraid of that step of confronting the past though. They simply want to bury it without ever fully dealing with that.
    In a case like that, yeah, the past is always going to be there lurking around the corner to continue to haunt you until you are strong enough to deal with it, get past it, and not allow it to have strength and power over you anymore.

  • Bayne t

    January 5th, 2013 at 4:20 AM

    I find that the one area where most people fail is that they do not seek out resources available to help them. Many times they close themselves off to healing and will not take advantage of the numerous group and written resources available to them that could possibly provide them some guidance and some hope.

  • Jan

    January 5th, 2013 at 10:04 PM

    As we move through life,we pick up baggage every single day.Whether we like it or not,what we see,and experience stays with us.We may say its the new ME,but really,the new has all of the old in it too.

    The way to get over something from the past would be to understand why it happened.And if there is nothing you can do to solve it,at least you can use it as a lesson for the future.Do not let the same happen to you.Whether an event is a success or a failure does not matter as much as how much we learn from it.And the more we learn from each event we encounter the more we grow as a person.

  • Cedar Barstow

    January 11th, 2013 at 9:55 AM

    Thank you for your responses. Sounds like we are all on the “same page” about understanding the importance of finding good ways to let go and move on. Yes, Bayne, there are many resources available, but it seems like it often takes people a lot of courage to ask for help or support. And yes, Jan, no matter what happens to us, we have choice about our attitude toward it…learning from situations is a good use of our personal powers. And yes, Cameron, in the long run, it is more painful to bury the past, than to face it. Best wishes to you in your using your power to face, learn from, and integrate this past. Cedar

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