By Chris Chandler, MA, LMHC, CSAT-C, Seattle Christian Counseling
Your past does not have to define you. Traumatic events, whether singular or prolonged, often affect people in subtle and unpredictable ways. You may feel inexplicably anxious, angry, or disconnected during certain situations. You may have difficulty forming connections with others.
In his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel argues that it is not so much these distressing events that shape you, but rather how you “make sense” of them. What is it that you internalize about the event that influences how you approach the future? (pp. 172)
How Your Past Affects Your Future
Let’s use the example of a child whose parents neglected her emotionally. If she fell down and scraped her knee, no one came rushing to soothe her. As she grows, the child “makes sense” of the neglect by assuming that she cannot depend on others when she is hurting. As an adult, she may suppress the urge to cry, for she has learned that it does her no good. She also avoids sharing her feelings with others.
Or, take the example of a young man who was sexually abused growing up. He may “make sense” of this traumatic lesson by resisting sexual contact with others because he associates this with shame and violence. Or he may resort to promiscuity as a means of gaining control in an area where he once had none.
Sometimes people do not realize how past traumatic events influence their actions. Often the learned behavior associated with the trauma is self-protective. It seems like the safest course of action, even if it actually keeps them from forming healthy relationships long after the trauma is over. They may be able to detect that something is not right about the way they approach life, or sense that there must be a better way of doing things, but they cannot figure out what it is.
Hope for Self-Improvement
These people do not have to live out their lives this way. Just because you struggle with connecting to others, or with overcoming certain anxieties now, does not mean you can’t change. Siegel writes: “Early experience is not fate: if we can make sense of our past–if we integrate our narratives–we can free ourselves from what might otherwise be a cross-generational legacy of pain and insecure attachment.” (pp. 189)
The fundamental theme of Christianity is change. God changes people. We struggle to change ourselves, but these self-willed modifications are often temporary. We need our Heavenly Father’s help to secure lasting improvement. The following passage reminds believers of God’s power to transform the lives of his children:
You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (I John 4:4, NKJV)
Christian Counseling for Personal Change
Just as other people are often the source of emotional handicaps, so God can also use other people to help you overcome these barriers. If you struggle with overwhelming anxiety, distance in your relationships, or facing your fears, get in touch with a professional Christian counselor. A Christian counselor will use therapeutic techniques and biblical principles to help you unlock what is holding you back in life. A Christian counselor can help you to understand what traumatic experiences from your past are limiting your future, and how to overcome them.
Personal change is a challenging, often uncomfortable, process. Take heart in Siegel’s assertion that:
It is never too late to heal the mind and to bring to ourselves and to those around us the compassion and kindness that arise from that healing and integration. (pp. 188)
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel
Images Flickr CreativeCommons
“Turn into something Beautiful” courtesy of Courtney Carmody, (CC BY 2.0)
“Into the Light” Courtesy of Shayn Anyi, (CC BY 2.0)