We’ve all heard the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Some of us heard it from a trusted friend, others from a therapist, a few in rehab. And we hear it so much that sometimes it seems to lose its meaning, or we get so involved in the habit of broken behavior we don’t realize we are caught in a cycle of bullshit. But I think the definition of insanity should be extended to include thinking about the past. Some of us relive the negative aspects of our past so often, we are driving ourselves – and others - insane.
Granted, everybody is a little crazy because life is rough. We’ve all been put through the ringer and wrung out to dry at some point. Your parents abused you, somebody touched you who wasn’t supposed to, the waitress brought you Coke when you wanted Pepsi. We work hard, ask the deep questions and seek the answers, do everything we are supposed to do in exactly the right way, and things just don’t work out no matter how hard we try. The drama and trauma of life often leaves us with emotional and spiritual scars.
Sometimes, when we’ve been hurt, we become like a child with a band aid – anytime we meet someone new, we point out our ouchie. Do you see this right here? I got hurt. Lookit! We launch into the story, yet again, in exact detail, about how it happened. And we peel back the bandage to show our audience the wound. See? Looks like it hurts huh? Well it does. You don’t know how much this hurts. No, you might have an ouchie like this, but my pain is different.
Well, maybe it wouldn’t hurt so badly if you stopped fucking with it, kid. Maybe if you stopped picking at the scab and put some ointment on it instead, and left the bandage on, it would heal.
I’ve got a friend (let’s call her Barbie) who was in a subpar relationship with this guy (let’s call him Ken). Barbie and Ken moved in together three months after they started dating, and promptly fell out of love about six months later. They stayed together out of habit and a fear of being alone, spending the next four years belittling each other, fighting over money, and generally pissing on one another’s dreams. When they finally separated, it was a joyous day not only for them, but for their friends and family who had watched this trainwreck from afar.
Now, it was expected that it would take awhile for Barbie to get over losing Ken. Her friends all knew it was all she was going to be able to talk about for awhile, and they honored that. They listened to the stories, comforted her, tried to help her rebuild her strength and sense of self. And she seemed to be healing, and after about a year she felt confident enough to start dating again.
But its THREE YEARS LATER and this past relationship is still all she can talk about. When Barbie’s friends get together with her, they know (and dread) that at least twice during the course of the evening she is going to bring up Ken. Every time she meets someone new she tells story of this doomed relationship, soaks up the sympathy and concerned looks like a sponge, and then sits and bitches that no guy every calls her for a second date.
Maybe we get addicted to the attention people give us when we go through a tough time. Maybe we are so damaged by what happened we believe all we are is those moments of pain. Maybe we’re just bitter and lonely, and boring.
Or maybe we say we are moving forward, but we are actually doing the same thing over and over again.
There’s a difference between discussing an incident in order to help heal it, or being caught in the trauma of it. Just like the kid with the ouchie, we don’t realize that every time we remove the bandage from the wound, we are lengthening the healing time. We’re risking infection. When we bring up the past with the passive intentions of sympathy, acknowledgement, or pity, we are actively participating in insane behavior. Because every time we tell that story, we are emotionally, physically, and spiritually reliving it. The skin gets hot, the stomach tightens, and we feel exactly like we felt when it happened – except now there’s a bit of anger and self pity thrown in.
I know a man who was physically and emotionally abused from the time he was three years old until his teenage years. He owns this abuse at every opportunity; telling his story to friends, family and therapists is an important part of his healing process. But somewhere along the way, he got caught in the discussing and never moved forward to the healing. This man is in his 50’s now, and he tells strangers his painful, heartbreaking story within fifteen minutes of meeting them. He’s gotten so caught up in owning and acknowledging the abuse, and addicted to the compassionate reactions he gets when he speaks about it, that the healing process has never been allowed to progress.
There comes a time when you have to stop thinking about whatever it was that hurt you in the past. Stop speaking, and take a moment to think about what you are getting ready to say. If every time you open your mouth it’s to tell yet another story about how so-and-so hurt you, how this or that was unfair – then you’re caught in a cycle that is hindering your growth. You’re so busy reliving the memories of pain and anger that it’s filling every space in your mind, in your spirit, and none of the good, joyful parts of life have the space to come in. It’s like every time something good happens you remind yourself no, no, no, my life is suppose to suck. No time for happy and letting go, because I’m too busy being in pain. And then things fall apart, and even though you’re depressed and brokenhearted part of you feels vindicated. See? Told you nothing good ever happens to me.
Constantly living in the past and not letting go is effective energywork of the self-fulfilling prophecy variety. This is a basic principle of the universe – like attracts like. Our thoughts and energy are creative, powerful, and are the driving force of existence. We call into our lives the things we think about and focus on – consciously and unconsciously. If you keep reliving all the negative experiences, that’s all you’re going to get. If all your attention is on how much money you don’t have, how every relationship is a dead end, how much that one incident damaged you - the Universe and your energy are going to go out of their way to prove you right.
So focus your attention on the healing. If you are one of those folks who can’t let the past go, ask yourself what exactly is it you need in order to move into the present; if you’re overwhelmed by the emotional pain, ask what is it you need in order to feel better. Take the time to honestly assess the situation. Are you helping/counseling someone and actively healing your wound by sharing your experience? Or are you participating in insane behavior?
Check out Part Two of this discussion: Promises You Shouldn't Keep