The holidays trigger many thoughts and emotions. Hopefully, they are pleasant reminiscences filled with happy feelings. Unfortunately, for some the memories are of experiences that brought disappointment and sadness. Holidays can be a painful reminder of unhappy family times and unmet needs.
Most of us have unpleasant memories from our past. However, having those memories isn’t as problematic as what we do with them. Are you expecting to be disappointed in the present and future because of your past experiences? Are you unconsciously setting traps so that others will fail you because it’s a familiar experience? Or are you isolating or distancing yourself from others with the hope of never feeling disappointment again?
Often, we are unconsciously controlling our current situation and relationships based upon our past experiences and relationships. It makes sense—we are wired to protect ourselves and to predict our present and future based upon our experiences from the past. Unfortunately, this can damage our relationships and prevent us from getting the love that we deserve.
So, how can we deal with past experiences that are negatively impacting our present day situations and relationships?
Here are six steps for dealing with the ghosts of holidays past:
1. Strive for Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is an important first step. Making the connection between your past experiences and your current relationship struggles can seem obvious, but we often fail to make the conscious connection because we don’t want to re-experience the pain. However, the truth is that we are already experiencing pain — and creating more pain — by trying to avoid it.
Instead, by making the direct connection between your past experiences and your current behaviors, you can begin to break the patterns that have kept you stuck, knowingly or unknowingly, in your past. Then, in your mind or on paper, create a snow globe that contains your painful memory—maybe it’s symbolic or maybe it’s an actual scene from your past that is most representative of your current struggles. This helps you contain your memory and enables you to distinguish it from your present day experiences.
2. Recognize When Your Snow Globe is Shaken
Second, when you get triggered by a situation or a memory, imagine that your snow globe is being shaken. The snow swirling around your image represents all of your negative thoughts and painful emotions. Now, take this moment to recognize the connection between your current emotional state and your past experience. It’s normal and understandable that you are still experiencing the pain associated with something that happened a while ago. It’s part of our common human experience. The pain we experience around memories is unavoidable. That might sound hopeless and depressing, but there’s good news, too. The change comes with how you behave in response to these triggering events. When you can begin to recognize that, when you get triggered in the present, you are still reacting to your past experiences, you can begin to make the changes that will get you closer to the healthy and loving relationships that you deserve.
3. Focus on the Moment
Third, focus your attention on the moment. Be present. Bring awareness to your current situation. Recognize that the flood of negative thoughts and painful emotions are tied to your past experiences. Mindfulness is a key component to getting unstuck from your past and making the important distinction between your previous experiences and what is happening now. This means acknowledging your thoughts and emotions (both positive and negative) objectively and with curiosity. View them as a news crawl on the television—they are passing by and you aren’t getting stuck on any specific thought of emotion. Or imagine yourself as the sky and you are watching the weather come and go—the sun, the clouds, the rain, the storms—they all pass and you are just a curious observer.
4. Identify Your Values
Fourth, once you are in the moment and the overwhelming thoughts and emotions have passed, you can make a behavioral choice that will get you closer to the healthy relationships that you desire. This choice can be challenging in that you are likely locked in a pattern of behavior that feels safe. The problem is that this old pattern isn’t getting you closer to the healthy loving relationships that you deserve.
In order to make new – and more helpful – choices, you will need some motivation and guidance when you’re faced with a triggering situation. The key is to let your choice be driven by your values. Thus, you must start by identifying your values, which can often get lost when we are focused on the most efficient way to protect ourselves. One way to reconnect with your values is to imagine what you would want people to say about you at your memorial service. How do you want to be remembered?
5. Make New Choices
Fifth, when you find yourself getting triggered by a person or situation, make the connection to your snow globe and recognize that your negative thoughts and painful emotions are connected to that experience (and others like it) from your past. You should not be reacting today to the person or situation from your past. You need to respond to your present day situation. This means making a helpful behavioral choice that is aligned with your values and with your goal of getting closer to the healthy and loving relationship you deserve.
6. Commit to Compassion
Sixth, bring compassion to yourself and others. We are all on a journey, and we are all touched deeply by pain. Compassion is sensitivity to the suffering of self and others, with a commitment to try to relieve and prevent this pain. Our inner critic can get in the way of accessing our compassionate self. And, if we’ve been hurt deeply we can often view compassion for others as a sign of weakness—making ourselves vulnerable to be hurt again. But, the truth is that our compassionate selves make us strong, and enable us to make meaningful and loving connections with ourselves and others.
The ghosts of holidays past will never disappear, but you can take away their power to control your present day experiences and relationships by staying in the moment and making the helpful behavioral choices that will bring you closer to the love that you deserve.
Michelle Skeen, PsyD is a therapist and the author of LOVE ME, DON’T LEAVE ME: Overcoming Fear of Abandonment & Building Lasting, Loving Relationships (New Harbinger, 2014). For more information, go to www.lovemedontleaveme.com.
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