There are many people who think that their past doesn’t have any influence on them today. They may feel this way because their childhood was years or decades ago, or perhaps because they’ve created a different life for themselves now. Others might discount the importance of their childhood on their present because they no longer live with their parents or may have told themselves they moved beyond it. However, it is not accurate to believe our past is completely in the past. Why? Because our crucial development took place in childhood and hurts or events from our past can have a negative influence on our current relationships without us even being aware of it.
Our brains, how we think, feel, and behave, were largely being formed between birth and our teenage years. More development continued into adulthood, but the majority of our learning and molding occurred in childhood. During these early years, we learned basic, crucial life skills, like trusting others, exploring our world, coming to know ourselves, being competent, having concern for others, and learning to be in close relationships. If we had deep or repeated hurts during this time, it left a scar on us emotionally and may have prevented us from fully learning certain skills or completing certain developmental tasks. Our purpose here is not to blame our parents. They probably did the best they knew how to do at the time. Instead, the reason for looking back to our past is to determine how past hurts are showing up in the present day and learn to move beyond them.
Being mindful can move us beyond past hurts. Mindfulness means being aware of what is happening inside of you in the present: right here and right now. When we are not mindful, we are reacting. Reacting happens when you do or say what your initial impulse is, often without even being aware of what you’re doing or saying.
When we are not mindful, our past hurts can creep into present day situations and influence how we see and react to things. How do you know the present situation is colored by your past? It’s when you freak out or shut down or otherwise feel very unsettled where others around you remain calm. In your intimate relationship, these are the areas that deeply upset you.
Here’s an example of how childhood hurts can crop up, and how being mindful can help you release painful feelings, move on, and improve your relationship.
Imagine two married women were talking (not difficult to imagine, I’m sure). One women casually mentioned that her husband was planning to golf all day that coming weekend. The other was surprised to hear that her friend was okay with that. She certainly wouldn’t be okay with her husband doing the same thing!! She wondered to herself, “How can she be all right with her husband making those plans?!” The surprised feeling was a clue that imagining her partner’s absence for the day was touching on something from her past. It was a trigger for her: her past was intermingling with present day circumstances. Her usual reaction when her husband planned all day outings was to get very upset with him. Without thinking, she would accuse him of doing something wrong. “How can you even think of planning a day of fun and relaxation for yourself and not consider me!?” He would say “It’s not a big deal! I’ll be home by 4:00 and I’ll be home all the next day! You want me around ALL the time. You’re so demanding!” They would end up in a big argument.
When she chooses to be mindful instead of just reacting angrily, the outcome can be very different. Being mindful is slowing down, noticing what’s occurring inside of you, and choosing a different reaction. In this scenario, when her husband made plans the woman actually had to stop herself from accusing her husband. In fact, she couldn’t talk to him at the moment those feelings came up because she would have reacted angrily. Instead of reacting, she paid close attention to the thoughts in her head. She realized she was telling herself, “He should want to be home with me and the kids on weekends. What right does he have to go out and have fun all day? He doesn’t really want to be with us. He doesn’t truly care about us.”
Remember: she didn’t say these thoughts – that would have been reacting/doing. She did nothing on the outside. She asked herself what she was feeling. Feelings are one word each. She felt jealous, rejected, angry, and lonely. Next, she connected it to the past. It came to mind that being home on weekends with her father when she was a girl felt similar, somehow. He was home but unavailable to her because he was working on his model train hobby for hours each day. They had no interaction. She didn’t know it at the time, but she felt lonely as a child.
Now back to the present: even though the circumstances weren’t exactly the same, there was a link between past and present. Naming the feelings and coming to know she felt lonely allowed her to make this connection. What did she do with these feelings? She did exactly the right thing. She ‘sat’ with them. She allowed herself to feel them, even though it is difficult and painful to feel jealousy, rejection and loneliness. She let them come up as opposed to trying to stuff them down. She noticed where they appeared in her body instead of distracting herself from them (by blaming and accusing her husband). She sat and experienced them until they subsided.
She was mindful in the sense that she decided to become curious about herself. Rather than doing or saying anything in the moment, she went inside of herself to explore what was coming up. Instead of telling herself that her husband was the cause of her anger, she made the conscious choice to see what was inside of her that was the source of her anger. It turns out that imaging that her husband was going out was just the trigger that touched on the past hurt.
Now here’s the next big step: deliberately choosing to have a different reaction. In this case, the woman decided to find a new way to react to her husband’s plans to leave the house. Now that she realized that it was loneliness underneath the upset, she could find a better way to get the loneliness soothed. She asked for two things: a hug right then and for time together when he got home. This was a HUGE shift because she moved away from blaming him. She stopped making him out to be the bad guy. She now could see that him going out golfing for a day wasn’t abusive or neglectful. She could remember that there were, indeed, many other times that he made plans to be with her and many other times when he reached out to hold her when they were home. She came to know that her initial upset had much more to do with what she experienced in childhood than it had to do with her husband going out.
Amazingly, because she recognized and could ask CALMLY for what she really wanted, her husband WANTED to be home with her more. I see this often in my work with couples: as one partner becomes calmer, the other partner is drawn to be with them. A shift in one spouse brings about a positive shift in the other spouse. Not necessarily right away, but over time, partners inch closer to one another.
Being mindful is the key to getting relationship problems resolved. In every moment with your partner, you have the ability to be curious about yourself and make a conscious choice to act differently. This is what brings about change in your life. Being mindful means you stop and notice what’s going on inside of yourself BEFORE doing anything. Being curious about yourself and deciding to do things differently will bring about healing for you AND will enable you to get your needs met. As you do things better in the present, you are leaving past hurts behind. You will begin to create the marriage you’ve always longed for: loving, supportive, and a safe haven for you both.
Maintaining a happy, healthy, long-term relationship can be so difficult with all the pressures and challenges in today’s fast-paced world. Maybe you’ve tried counseling before with little to no results. Maybe you ended up more frustrated or things improved a little, but only temporarily. The therapists at Couples Therapy Center of NJ can help. We’re all specialists in the area of intimate relationships. We can give you the support, new perspective, and tools you need to have more love and excitement in your relationship. Can’t get your partner to come in with you? No problem! We see individuals, too. Call us at 908-246-3074 or email GetSupport@CouplesTherapyCenterOfNJ.com now to schedule your appointment. Don’t wait any longer. Start making positive changes today.