Photographs hang in our hallways, placed obviously and purposefully for us to see as we move through our daily lives. They sit quietly in boxes underneath our beds and on top of wardrobes patiently gathering dust until our next opportunity for quiet reminiscence. More recently technology has enabled us to capture thousands of images, meaning that our pasts are immediately accessible in the present, and the same mechanisms encourage us to share our histories on our social media timelines. It’s not only photographs that we have appetite to keep, but clothing, wedding dresses, school reports, artwork, and scrapbooks to name but a few examples. You could say that we are obsessed with the past and with looking backwards, either with fondness or melancholy. This can however cause friction in the present, something we have to be mindful of.
Firstly, it’s important to acknowledge that looking backwards can be both positive and negative. Imagine someone holding a photograph of themselves from their 10th birthday party. Consciously, they can recall the static of the morning’s anticipation, whispers of sounds, fading film reels of the games on loop, the presents. They linger on these things romantically and happily with the mind often darting to unexpected remembrances, like the textures of food or the feel of the sun from that particularly hot summers day. How many of you have done this yourselves? As I write this, I remember attending a birthday party for my school friends at a time when I’d just moved away from them. I remember the excitement of seeing them again, that it hadn’t been so long that they would have forgotten me, but also that it would give rise to some egoic sense of status in that they would be exited to see this emboldened ‘returner’. Oddly, the other thing I remember is eating a triangle of butter that I thought was cheese but chewed and swallowed it before anyone would see.
This is the power of conscious memory. These detailed images and emotions are imprinted and easily tuned into. Sometimes we need a prompt, like a picture or an old book, to help us dial into the right frequency. At a deeper level, it could maybe be seen that our appetite to turn to and always check in with the past is our innate desire to acknowledge that we have simply ‘lived’, that we were once young, that we have had experience, and in doing so that we have a place in the world whereby we have added value and that it all hasn’t been for nothing. It’s also very automatic. We have lived and therefore we ‘remember’.
However, in looking backwards we underestimate the power of what I would call the ‘attributing unconscious memory’. By this I mean the feelings, emotions, and most importantly beliefs that are recalled without knowing. These are linked both to time and place, but deeply and directly to the way we feel about or see ourselves. This has other implications.
Let me explain this as follows. Take again the example of someone looking at a photograph of themselves from their 10th birthday party. They consciously process the positive feelings relating to the time, the anticipation, the games, the presents. However, happening concurrently in their lives the individual’s parents were going through a painful and messy divorce. Imagine now that during this time the individual bore witness to aggression, to domestic violence, to misplaced anger whereby the parents blamed the child as a factor in the breakup of the relationship. Imagine that this instilled the belief within the individual that ‘all relationships go wrong’, an anxiety they have carried for their whole life ever since that time. In looking at the photo their conscious memory sees, understands and remembers the party fondly, but without knowing it, the unconscious memory has surfaced the attributed feelings of anxiety and beliefs about relationships.
Here is the rub. In looking backwards we experience fond memories, but we can also unconsciously resurface and reinforce beliefs that we might hold about ourselves, but not yet know. These beliefs can be huge limiting factors in our current or present levels of fulfilment if we still believe them. A huge problem is that we don’t always realise that we hold these beliefs and we don’t realise that our past thoughts are reinforcing them. In other words, looking backwards can stop us from knowing the person we are presently and the life we are living presently.
In order to understand the importance of this it’s necessary to know the difference between beliefs and facts. A belief is an acceptance that something exists or is true, often without proof. In contrast, a fact is something that is proven to be true. To illustrate this imagine that a child is repeatedly told throughout their life that water is made of unicorn tears. They are told it over and over again. They believe resolutely that water is made out of unicorn tears. However, we know that water is in fact made out of hydrogen and oxygen as proven by science (or at least until science proves otherwise). Looking at another example and applying this to the self, a child can grow up to be told that they are stupid. They are told over and over again that they are stupid, and the child then believes this for the majority of their lives. However, this is a belief and not a fact. This belief can be changed by self-awareness and self-measurement which acts as the proof. So, someone who has believed that they are stupid for the majority of their life can overcome these esteem issues by proving to themselves, largely though knowing presently that they are not stupid, and as measured by personal achievement or personal successes
And so here is the problem with constantly reminding ourselves about the past. The past is just that, its gone. It can be really helpful to us when we know that we are not the same people we were. It can be really helpful to remember fond memories, happy times, and to know that we have lived and have been and are alive. It can also be helpful in understanding why our lives have been difficult, why we are anxious, and why we have formed unhealthy views of ourselves. This is a respectful backwards view that informs the present rather than shapes it. The danger does still exist though, that if we look backwards without being mindful in this way, that our ‘attributing unconscious memory’ holds us back by reinforcing old beliefs that simply aren’t true. This is a negative by-product of living too much in the past.
So, what can be done about it. This is a difficult question, with a difficult, but achievable answer. If you have experienced past trauma, past emotional difficulties then you need to know that more often than not these experiences have shaped how you view yourself and that these views have probably followed you throughout your life. They don’t have to just exist in childhood. They can occur at any point in your life. The important element is knowing that these difficulties have been so powerful that they have made you believe things about yourself. The key word again, is ‘belief’, you believe these things to be true unconsciously. The trick is to bring these beliefs into the present consciousness, compare them to the person that exists currently including all of your values, thus disproving the past. In applying this process you are living presently and knowing your true self. You are changing immediately what you know to be true about yourself. You are changing your beliefs. Quite simply, you are consciously in touch with your true self, and not your past beliefs. This can be life changing.
Let me give you a real wold example and I’ll use my own experiences in order to do so. When I was very young I was told over and over again by an abusive step- parent as well as my own mother that I was ‘worse than useless’ often reinforced by the threat as well as the reality of physical violence. I would do anything to avoid this including being quiet and submissive but also trying to please people as a defence and avoidance mechanism. For years I believed that to be liked meant having to please everyone and if someone didn’t like me, well…this would cause huge anxiety. For many years I held these beliefs. When they surface in the present, which they still do from time to time, I pause for a moment and take stock of my present reality. I ask myself questions. “Am I liked?”, “Am I a good person?”, “Am I stupid?”. The answers are, “Yes, I can prove that I am liked through my friendships and relationships”, “Yes, I am good person because I try to be conscientious and thoughtful of others”, “No, I can’t I always please everyone as proven by the fact that I know there will be, and are, people who don’t like me and this is ok”, “No, I’m not stupid as proven by the fact that I show to others that I have a good level of emotional intelligence”, and so on.
What this shows is that I am overcoming my old self beliefs. I am in the process of changing them. I contrast past with present and make a conscious comparison. This equation is incredibly freeing. It also grounds me in the present, and as the present is the only place I can exist, this is my present truth.
So how can you live presently? Well, be wary of the past. Explore it but be careful not to see it as your present reality. It’s a happy inevitability that we reminisce and remember but be careful not to revisit it as an exercise in self-harm. Know that the past has affected you, but it is NOT you now. It simply can’t be because it has gone. Use the processes outlined above when you feel you are not living fully in the present or that you’re being held back by feelings of unfulfillment, sadness, or anger that are perhaps unconsciously linked to the past. Become conscious. Take some steps to realise that unhelpful feelings might be caused by old beliefs you have about yourself. Walk yourself through what they are, why they are, and know that they can be changed. This might be painful, but in the end, it could be life altering as you find yourself in a different and more affirming ‘present’ reality. Don’t look blindly at the past without knowing your truth in the present. This the path to achieving meaningful and life altering change.