Breaking Free Of The Past

freedom

Photo: Leonidas Tsementzis

As I wrote in an earlier post, The True Cause Of Cruelty, for me seventh grade was a disaster.  I was persecuted by anti-Semites and so traumatized that my parents endured owning two houses at once for six months in order to get me into a new school.  I left seventh grade mistrustful, fearful, and socially isolated, feeling as if I’d hidden my true self for so long in order to minimize the risk of persecution that I’d lost track of it entirely.

In subsequent years, I’d occasionally look back and wonder how the experience had scarred me, figuring vaguely that what didn’t kill me made me stronger, but never really delving too deeply into the fear that still remained in the pit of my stomach whenever I’d be thrust into new situations.

Then in my first year of medical school I began practicing Buddhism.  I was told, among other things, that through practicing it one could change one’s past, present, and future.  Present and future I could understand—but past?  I had no real understanding how I could change something that had already occurred.

And then one day while chanting about my seventh grade experience, curious to see if the practice would provide me any insight into what had happened, I had an epiphany:  the true reason I’d been made a victim as I had was because I’d let it happen.  Whenever I’d perceived myself to be in danger of being attacked my strategy had been to ingratiate myself with my would-be attacker in any way I could.  I’d allow myself to be teased, disdained, embarrassed, or humiliated as long as I believed it would prevent me from being hurt.  Not once did I ever fight back.

In a flash, I saw this pattern stretch backward from that moment to touch my failed relationship with my first girlfriend, then arc through my seventh grade experience, and finally extend into the farthest recesses of my earliest childhood.  Making myself into a victim had been a strategy I’d used throughout my life, I realized, for many reasons:  to get attention; to convince others to protect me when I felt threatened; to appear invisible to malevolent peers.  And though the strategy often worked, the problem was actually just that—the strategy often worked.  I had little incentive to challenge my fears and learn to stand up for myself.

I didn’t actually recognize it until sometime later, but at the moment I awoke to how often I played the victim in my relationships, I ceased being willing to do it.  And as my change in attitude gradually began to seep into my interactions with others, the relationships I’d created that required me to remain a victim faded away, and relationships with other people who were attracted to my new-found assertiveness began to appear.

WHERE DOES THE PAST EXIST?

Though this was a wonderful breakthrough for which I was profoundly grateful, an even bigger realization struck soon after:  the way I felt about my seventh grade experience had changed as well.  It was no longer a sensitive wound I took pains to avoid rubbing but was now a well-healed scar I could hardly even see.  The experience seemed now like nothing other than an example of my tendency to play the victim (not that this tendency in any way excused my classmates’ behavior) rather than a major trauma from which I still struggled to recover.

I realized, in short, that I had indeed changed the past, in the only way that mattered—not by changing what had actually happened but by changing the significance of what had happened and therefore how what had happened continued to affect me.

The events of the past exist nowhere else but in our memories, which give rise to the feelings and thoughts we have about them.  By themselves, of course, events are neutral.  We place judgments on them based on how they affected us, rendering good judgments about those things which benefited us and bad judgments about those things which harmed us.  It’s the feelings that result from those judgments that remain with us, not the events themselves.  And though we can’t change our memories of events, we can change whether or not they harmed or benefited us.

HOW THE PAST CAN BE CHANGED

We can do this by finding a way to create value out of events we judged as harmful.  If we can genuinely utilize past events as springboards for growth, reinterpreting them into positive events that may have been traumatic but which were actually required for our development, we can free ourselves from the pain associated with our memories of them.

I transformed my seventh grade experience when I reflected on it and came to the sudden insight that it was really a manifestation of my tendency to allow myself to be victimized—and, most significantly, changed it.  Had my seventh grade experience never occurred, I’d still be playing the victim today.  However, as a result of being able to use the experience to eject a significant piece of negativity from my life, I now feel genuinely grateful for having suffered through that persecution.

How then can we break free of the past?  By using it as fuel for growth in the present.  If an event from our past remains painful to think about, we should understand that pain as an indication we have unfinished business—not with whoever or whatever else was involved in the event itself, but with ourselves.  Maybe someone hurt us.  Maybe we hurt someone else.  Maybe we made a choice out of weakness or fear or anger that we regret.  We don’t have to waste time in recriminations or in wishing we could go back in time to change what happened.  We only need to find a way to turn that hurt or regret into a catalyst for growth moving forward from today.  If you can truly find a way to think about the past like that, take a good look back at your own.  Instead of painful traumas you’d rather not think about, you should see nothing but opportunity after opportunity after opportunity.

Next weekHow To Manage Anger

33 comments to Breaking Free Of The Past

  • Hi Alex,

    This was a very powerful and poignant post.

    “The events of the past exist nowhere else but in our memories, which give rise to the feelings and thoughts we have about them.“ This statement is profound. These feelings can sometimes be so intense it gives raise to actual physical sensations. A few years ago I had an accident, which resulted in my tibial plateau being crushed. The injury was so bad my leg had to be rebuilt with coral (maybe that is why I’m so attracted to the sea; we are one). For months I would get memory flashes of the accident and could actually feel and hear my bone breaking. It seemed that these memories would happen spontaneously. Eventually they ceased and the coral completely transformed into my bone leaving no trace of the sea.

    Past experiences that result in leaving an emotional scar are relived each time we tell the story either to someone or when thinking about it. Indeed it is our interpretation that creates how we feel; no one makes us feel a certain way; that power rest entirely with us. What works for me is to not relive the past by giving my energy to how I live in the present.

    It takes practice, but when we live in the present the past has no power over us. By being mindfully present we take responsibility for who we are and our relationships.

  • Marion

    Wow. Thank you so much for such an excellent, thought provoking essay.

  • Lil Gluckstern

    Your post comes at a particularly difficult time. As I lit the Yahrzeit candles tonight for my parents who are no longer alive, I pondered how they had both loved me, made me, and also destroyed so much of the spirit that I have worked so hard to redeem. Fortunately, in listening to your words, I realize that I need to let go of the past and truly live in the present, not expecting people to make up for the past, or to repeat it, which unfortunately they will, because I am so needy or maybe because I take too much on myself. The present is actually good to me. I need to cull those who would hurt me and remember those who are so wounded themselves that they remember we are in this world all together, to do the best we can as imperfect human beings, who sometimes fail, and don’t need to be laughed at in those times. I really enjoy your posts, and your letters in The New York Times which so often speak to me, and echo my thoughts. Thank you.

    Lil: Thank you for your kind words, and my condolences on your loss and hope for your continued healing.

    Alex

  • Peggy

    Hi Alex,
    Your essay and all the responses are so enlightening. On my birthday my daughter asked me what I have learned in my 65 years and I told her “to be kind.” I know we have to forgive like Jesus did and Buddha and all the great saints. Forgiveness allows us to move on and not forget our hurts but to learn from them and don’t allow abuse in the future from that individual. It clears the air.

    Peggy: I absolutely agree forgiveness does far more for the forgiver than the forgiven. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog.

    Alex

  • Anthony

    Dr. Alex,

    This post reminds me of what I learned after reading the book by Chris Prentiss, Zen and the Art of Happiness. He talks about how everything that happens to you is the best possible thing that can happen to you. Although at the time, you may think things are bad, in fact they are much needed for our growth. Nothing is good and nothing is bad. Things of the past are deemed good or bad depending upon our reaction to those events…I can’t wait to re-read this article at work tomorrow. It was one of my favorites of yours. Like always, it gives me a sense of calm and your articles always keep the big picture in mind. Thank you, Dr. :)

    Anthony: I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

    Alex

  • Carol

    Dear Alex,

    I enjoyed your post and forwarded it to my husband who is a wounded Jew who has not recovered from attacks.

    While I agree with the statements, I also feel that they were simplistic and incomplete. Awareness is the key, however…not all people will meditate, do yoga (as in my case), or become aware through a spiritual path.

    Oprah Winfrey tells that her awareness of the significance of her painful past came from interviewing others, becoming one with their pain, and understanding how it reverberated with her pain.

    Others tell that therapy helped them immeasurably. Recently, McKenzie Phillips, tells that by writing a book about her experience with incest with helped strengthen her insights and understanding, and has helped others cope with their pain.

    Yes, pain is in the memories of our brain – but severe physical abuse and trauma is locked in the neurons and changes the configuration of brain interactions. While it is true that post-traumatic shock syndrome (PTSS) can be treated, it is also true that some never recover from it. Currently, a very high percentage of woman veterans have come back from their war experience and are now homeless, because of their PTSS was never adequately treated.

    Yes, the past can be changed, but it is also true that for some it never is, and eventually it destroys them (ex. Michael Jackson).

  • Janice

    I agree with Carol that awareness is the key. And unfortunately, for many of us, perhaps most, the easiest way to deal with pain is to bury it, the opposite of awareness. Even blatant injuries that seemingly are “public” and therefore exposed have many layers to deal with and may reveal themselves in stages over a lifetime. Or not. Unless one is very aware of what’s going on inside. I was involved in a series of events in my early life that by any measure would be described as traumatic. For some reason, probably because of the time I grew up, I was very much a “what good can come out of this” type of person. However, that attitude, seemingly so healthy and positive, left me unaware of the effects of these events and I found myself over the years experiencing at times frightening episodes of paranoia, separation anxiety, substance abuse, emotional detachment and depression. It wasn’t until I realized 40 years later that I had never dealt with any of these childhood issues, i.e., became AWARE, that I’m able to truly understand the past and not be a victim much like the way Alex described himself. And here all along I thought I was being strong when I was just hiding. And I got a lot of positive reinforcement for that. That’s what took me so long to figure out all the confusing stuff going on inside me. The kind of activism described by Carol in her post a la Oprah and MacKenzie Phillips requires awareness and motivation (not to mention courage) to change the past or at least not be chained by it.

  • Vasavi

    This is one topic that is very significant for me. Like Janice, the scars of past trauma’s sometime wreak havoc in my daily life, without even being aware of it. Yes it is hard, and perhaps it will take a lifetime for it not overwhelm. That is what I have to keep reminding myself, and not be afraid to ask for help; something that has been extremely difficult for me, since I tend to keep things to myself.

    Just as Carol mentioned, the other thing that has helped me creating value is reaching out to others who have suffered. They and I grow and heal together. Though it does make the past okay, but I am working on creating something from it that has meaning and substance.

    I just wanted to share something from my mentor that I have found that helps me to find hope in the darkest times. Hope it helps other see a light:

    “Even places that have been shrouded in darkness for billions of years can be illuminated. Even a stone from the bottom of a river can be used to produce fire. Our present sufferings, no matter how dark, have certainly not continued for billions of years —nor will they linger forever. The sun will definitely rise. In fact its ascent has already begun.” ~Daisaku Ikeda

    Alex, thank you for sharing your thoughts and life through these posts.

    Vasavi

  • I share your coping mechanism of being the victim. I subconsciously sought to tap into the abuser’s pity or humanity, which was a chimera.

    I am now in the process of not seeking identity through victimhood, but through being a decider, someone who chooses. I had mistakenly saw perseverance as strength. An early counselor asked me what I would do with an abusive relationship in which I found myself. I said I would endure.

    She said, “Lisa, life is about more than endurance.” It is a big shift in thinking. Thanks for writing about your challenge.

    Lisa: Wise words.

    Alex

  • Camilo

    Alex,

    I’ve been reading your posts for about a month now and every single one of them has made me reflect…I look forward very much to my Monday mornings now because I know I’ll find something interesting and invigorating to read. Thank you.

    Camilo: I’m so glad you’re enjoying them!

    Alex

  • George

    As always, I found this post very thought provoking. In it you said “…Whenever I’d perceived myself to be in danger of being attacked my strategy had been to ingratiate myself with my would-be attacker in any way I could. I’d allow myself to be teased, disdained, embarrassed, or humiliated as long as I believed it would prevent me from being hurt. Not once did I ever fight back.” As a Buddhist, what would be a good strategy for fighting back? If you could go back in time what would you do differently? I have never heard a Buddhist teaching on self-defense that really has convinced me. Even the Dalai Lama had to flee Tibet and hasn’t been able to get his tormentors to cease. I still struggle with what to to do when compassion and reason just don’t work.

    George: Nichiren Buddhism provides no prescriptions about anything, no rules or thou-shalt-nots. It’s founded on the idea that all the wisdom, strength, and compassion you need to solve your problems already exists in your own life. As a Buddhist I would turn to violence as a last resort only and with great regret and a heavy heart, but I can easily imagine circumstances in which taking physical action would indeed be the wisest and most compassionate thing to do (moral choices are never easy and are often between a bad choice and a worse one—see my previous post, Become A Force For Good). Buddhism is practiced to bring forth one’s compassion, but that doesn’t mean, in my mind, refusing to defend oneself when being attacked is compassionate (certainly, it’s not toward oneself). In answer to your question, I wish I had more self-confidence at the time and had stood up for myself, both verbally and physically. Bullies tend to ignore people who stand up to them, and in my view allowing someone to bully you is neither compassionate to them nor to yourself.

    Alex

  • Mary Carlisle

    Another amazing post, Alex. Thank you, and I LOVE your explanation of Nichiren Buddhism. I’m going to use this when I bump up against people who have certain views on how they think Buddhists are “supposed to act or what they’re supposed to tolerate.”

    To the other readers: Alex and his wife are good friends of mine from Chicago and six years ago Alex is the one who introduced me to the this practice of Buddhism. I couldn’t ask for a more amazing friend and inspiration. These two are friends for life.

    My story with the past also involves a bully (someone posing as a friend) who tried to use the past to manipulate and control me. I never had any moral issues or shame attached to a few choices I had made in my life because by that time I realized it had all been a part of my life and I learned from it; also my practice of Buddhism taught me a lot about not feeling guilt-ridden or shame and there’s really no need for it. I had taken on a much more optimistic view of my entire life and had tremendous amounts of gratitude for all of my life experiences and all the people who have been in my life. I began to see my life as a lotus flower that only blooms into beauty up from the depths of mud in a swamp and blossoming into beauty. I saw all my past life choices and troubles as blessing and opportunity for growth. Unfortunately this “friend” who had made a few of the same life choices as mine didn’t have the same feelings about her past and having done this. It’s almost like she was pissed and angry I wasn’t as miserable as her so she covertly made several attempts to blackmail me with emails about it. It was without a doubt the most disturbing thing for one because I had never had anything so strange happen, and two to see how much pain she was in because of this was also disturbing and sad.

    I didn’t feel there was any salvaging the friendship at this point after all the manipulation; however I did chant for her after I got past the anger and hurt of the betrayal. This whole post made this experience come to mind again. I do think it’s important to acknowledge what you need to from your past and heal from it but this is not the same thing as being guilt-ridden, feeling shame and allowing it to cripple you from moving forward in your life, nor is it projecting your unhappiness onto others to make them feel just as bad as your feeling.

    Having really grown in my practice I embrace my entire life and see it as what has made me even more compassionate. It’s also made me feel more connected to other people and knowing none of us are perfect. We as human beings connect through imperfection not perfection, and sharing our past and experiences is what brings us closer. I thank God I have stories and experiences that make me human.

  • Alex,

    I’m not sure how I chanced on your blog but was reading a comment on health care in NYTimes (by you?) saw a URL on Happiness, clicked and voila!

    Wonderful to find a physician who ponders so deeply, who does and acknowledges self-healing processing, if I may generalize in this way. And lovely to view how your sharing brings up opportunities for others—to contemplate and “change the past.”

    I was struck by your story of anti-Semitism and your description of yourself as a Buddhist doctor. Could you write a bit please about how you relate to your Judaic origins, how your path took you to Buddhism, and how you reconcile your root tradition with those you’ve adopted?

    thanks, and L’Shonah Tovah,
    bett

    Bett: I still consider myself ethnically Jewish but had always been more curious about the notion of enlightenment and about finding a practice that had the power to bring forth wisdom in a pragmatic way.

    Alex

  • Jill MacGregor

    Alex,
    Thank you for this beautiful, freeing post.

    We all carry something from the past that torments us. I carry around something from when I was just a teenager. I know I’ve allowed this to sabotage relationships—key word: allowed.

    Sure, I can argue that this situation colored my perspective at a very young age when ideas where being formed and sort of polluted my waters. But even perspective is a choice and I have decided to shift my gaze to an alternative vantage point. I do get to choose how the past is used in my present. I stopped dragging around that rotting corpse several years ago, realizing the load was unnecessary, heavy and served no purpose. No one was making me do it but me.

    Life is easier if you don’t force people to pay for the sins of others.

    Take Care,
    Jill

    Jill’s latest post: 10 Life Changing Lessons I Learned While Painting

  • My partner, Dr. Fred Horowitz at http://www.happiness-after-midlife.com/fred-horowitz.html, is also inspired by Buddhist thinking. He recently wrote about a Zen notion viewing life as being perfect in the moment: “A man was fleeing, pursued by a tiger. He came to the edge of a precipice, the tiger right behind. In desperation, he climbed over the edge down a long vine. Above him, the tiger roared. Below him lay a thousand-foot drop into raging rapids. Further, two mice, one white and one black, had begun gnawing through the vine. Suddenly, the man noticed a luscious strawberry growing just within his reach. Holding onto the vine with one hand, with the other he plucked the strawberry. How delicious it tasted.”

    Dr. Fred commented that “the idea is that the only thing that exists is the moment. The past and future are concepts—they don’t exist in reality; they exist as thoughts. The perfection part comes from the meaning of the word—whole and complete, including flaws. There’s no place to get to. There’s nothing to fix. It’s being with the moment as it is, accepting it—not resisting. The perfection referred to here isn’t the perfection in which something is being compared to some idealized standard.”

  • Sandy

    Alex,
    Would you consider writing something about forgiveness sometime? You have alluded to it in many posts and indeed I believe it is an essential step in breaking free of your past. However, I find it nearly impossible to forgive my abuser. This single fact may be keeping me chained to my past as well as empowering my abuser. I just do not know how to find my way to forgiveness. I would love to know what you think of the role forgiveness plays in our lives.
    Thanks
    Sandy

    Sandy: That’s a great idea for a post. Look for it in the coming weeks.

    Alex

  • Jacqueline

    Alex,

    The past is NOT reality. Why spend even one moment on it?

    Memories are only perceptions that are not real. Live in the glorious, present moment!!

  • Brendalee

    What a beautiful post. I have been thinking about it all week, about the changes that have been happening in my life since my journey with changing my perceptions and responses to the past. I was sexually assaulted 10 years ago Sept and for years I allowed this experience to take my life hostage. I must say that the work to come out the other side might just be the hardest and most painful thing I have ever done. I will also say that coming out the other side has empowered me to live without fear, hate, and shame, all of which I was struggling with for years following this experience. Today, I realize that I can let this experience destroy me or I can live a happy and glorious life in spite of it. I choose the latter, and it’s all about choices, isn’t it?

    Brendalee: It certainly is about choices, and about getting yourself into a place where you can make healthier ones—no easy task as you obviously know well.

    Alex

  • Ohhh, gosh. Yeah…but, no. I see the truth and value in your process, but I also feel like you blamed the victim (yourself).

    Victim-blaming is usually seen as something done by the victimizer. Less well understood is the fact that victim-blaming serves the victim too, by giving them a sense of control.

    With regard to the bullies, you have now convinced yourself that if you’d carried yourself differently, if you’d reacted differently, if you’d refused to “play the victim,” you would not have been victimized.

    In my opinion, you can’t know that. None of us can know for sure how things would have turned out if we’d made different choices or even just “been” subtly different at past junctures of our lives.

    Before seventh grade, were you *really* “playing the victim,” or were you just being a kid, with all of a kid’s vulnerability, openness and lack of skill? If you “played the victim” afterward, as you got older, might that not have been a result of how you were treated—rather than a cause?

    If you find it helpful to believe that you brought your bullying on yourself, then believe it. But I wonder if there’s a way to heal and transform the legacy of that time without taking on a responsibility which I doubt is really yours to take.

    Savannah: You raise several excellent points. Telling myself I “played the victim” did indeed give me a sense of control, but only once I fully apprehended it, not at the time of the experience. Certainly, a lot of it was, as you say, me just being a kid. And yet, other kids had different reactions to the same bullying, so a part of it had to be my particular reaction. I don’t think, had I fought back, that I wouldn’t have been bullied. I do think it wouldn’t have lasted as long nor had as detrimental an impact. Also, when I recognized my tendency to play the victim, I saw it clearly go back before my experience in seventh grade. It was definitely something I brought to that experience, not something I only carried away from it. I agree, however, that in accepting responsibility for my tendency to play the victim that I need to be careful not to accept responsibility for their bullying or to condone it in any way. A fine line to walk.

    Alex

  • web catalyst

    As a child of Holocaust survivors with much angst unconsciously passed along by my parents and my own personal experiences as a young child subject to much upheaval along the way to immigrating to the US I very much appreciate the impact our past continues to have in our present lives.

    I found your recent post most helpful. Thank YOU!

    May I post it to a list of adult children of survivors of the Holocaust? I am confident that many on that list could also benefit from your wisdom.

    Web Catalyst: You most certainly may post it!

    Alex

  • Carol

    Although I agree with the transformative capability of humans to grow from past hurts, I found the wording the last paragraphs too simplistic.

    On the one hand, you write that the past can be changed “by finding a way to create value out of events we judged as harmful.” However, previous you said elegantly that you changed the past…”not changing what had actually happened (to me) but by changing the significance of what had happened.”

    You write later that to “change the past” we must “genuinely utilize past events as springboards for growth, reinterpreting them into positive events…which were actually required for our development…”

    While I agree it is desirable if one can fully digest past experiences, assimilate it and use it for future growth, however for this will not be possible for some. Recently, Elizabeth Smart was able to testify against her rapist with incredible strength, courage and composure. She was 14 when the abuse occurred. However, there are other cases such as Elisabeth Fritzl in Austria who suffered long term child abuse/rape will have a difficult, maybe impossible journey to recover, and may never fully overcome suffering. The fate of her children is also problematic.

    While I agree the awareness and insight can be freeing for some. I also know from first hand experience that some the past cannot be transformed, and negative addictive patterns set which are destroying. Basically, my understanding of Buddhism is that things are never black or white, they are yes, no and maybe, sometimes all at the same time (conditional).

    Carol: I guess the point I was making was that the way we change the significance of what’s happened to us in the past is in fact by actually transforming those traumas into the very things we need for our growth. Certainly I didn’t mean to be glib about it—I think there’s nothing harder to do. But in fact I practice Buddhism to do just that, finding that when all else fails me (introspection, meditation, etc), my practice has always come through for me, even though it’s always been incredibly painful. As a Buddhist, I don’t accept there are past traumas we can never free ourselves from, no matter how horrible they may have been. Just because one hasn’t been successful yet by whatever means one has employed doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be successful at all.

    Alex

  • RG

    Thanks for this post. I’ve been trying to recover from my own experience with something like bullying. It’s interesting how reluctant I am to call it that, even though your list (teased, disdained, embarrassed, or humiliated) is startlingly apt. If the phrase “let it happen” is useful for you, I’m glad, but I do think the comment about not blaming the victim is apt. One of the core ingredients of abuse is the way one can doubt one’s reality; people who see only the good side can tell you you’re overreacting. Often the bullier has more people on his side, more history, more clout. And there is human nature leading us to want to believe that a disagreement is a difference of perspective rather than malice, or someone in a bad mood.

    Standing up to one’s bully is a choice, not always the best one. The bully won’t always back off or pick another victim, they might bring in reinforcements. I don’t know what the right answer is; it seems like it’s possible to sidestep attacks without direct confrontation (which bullies dislike/thrive on). I wonder if a better response would be to feed their ego, something like what you did.

    RG: Ironically, my strategy did, in fact, mostly work. It kept me safe and unharmed. And I certainly wasn’t in a position to act any differently with confidence (nor do I think many, if not most, other children would have been either). I don’t regret my behavior. Because of it I’ve learned how to behave differently as an adult. Bullies no longer intimidate me. But it was a long journey from there to here.

    Alex

  • Carol

    You write as a reply, “As a Buddhist, I don’t accept there are past traumas we can never free ourselves from, no matter how horrible they may have been. Just because one hasn’t been successful yet by whatever means one has employed doesn’t mean it’s impossible to be successful at all.”

    My question to this is…then what about people who have died, either by suicide or other means who did not successfully recover from child abuse or other horrible trauma?

    As a Buddhist, do you believe that they have to be reincarnated again to successfully overcome past life traumas? My experience is that some in this lifetime (in my case my sister), do not overcome child abuse at the hands of a parent (mother). My sister is dead now…that’s why I know that some will not overcome their traumas. I have lived the pain of this, and I know from experience that not everyone has a “happily ever after experience.” From my experience, it is not possible for some to “utilize past events as springboards for growth, reinterpreting them into positive events.” To say otherwise doesn’t make it so.

    Carol: Finding one example of someone who wasn’t able to utilize a past event as a springboard for growth doesn’t prove it’s impossible, only that some people don’t. I must agree with you that tragically many don’t have a “happily ever after experience.” To accomplish that takes real determination using a method that really works, both of which are in short supply. The Buddhist view would be that we all repeat patterns (our “karma”) within one lifetime and across multiple lifetimes until we take steps to change it. Again, from the Buddhist perspective, those steps would involve taking up Buddhist practice itself. My condolences for your loss.

    Alex

  • RG

    “Bullies no longer intimidate me.” This is probably not the place for it, but maybe in a future post you could elaborate on this. You might mean it as I said, that one can make the choice to submit to it without being “intimidated.” Or it might mean that you don’t automatically capitulate but choose to shore up your defenses. And it might mean that you make them follow through on their threats. The other issue that I’m watchful for in myself, is a tendency to react to new situations as though I were dealing with the bully.

    RG: Another reader wondered about a similar issue. Watch for a post coming in a week or two about this topic. Thanks for the suggestion.

    Alex

  • Breann

    Great post! We all live with issues from our past, and as for me I still remain in a situation of utter depression because of a choice I made to remain weak, and “settle” in a safety net (now my marriage) at the young age of 17 after years of issues. I’m now 37 and just beginning to dig deep to figure out why I made choices; only now do I see a road map of the path I took as a child…is some of it my fault because I was weak?

    *Stable for first 9 years of life, but then at age of 9 I was flashed (by a flasher 2x) and then taken into a boiler room at my apartments where the maintenance man all the kids knew just nicely was able to lure me in there. He only put his mouth to mine when my friends came in looking for me, and I ran…I felt different, weak, and that I was the only one this happened to. I ran away, but it made me feel…different. I didn’t tell anyone because of embarrassment, but now wish I would have because how many kids did he did this to, too.

    *10 yrs old: Dad kidnapped my sister, took us south. One week later mom figured out where we were and came back. She hated him after that; we moved 2 x in 1 1/2 years later and then she left him.

    *12 yrs old: moved a 3rd time with mom to bad neighborhood for about 10 months.

    *13 yrs old: moved a 4th time to different neighborhood with Dad. Still innocent, met a boy I really liked, but my Dad was single, out at night when one night, went down to an apt with friends where “older” kids (18-20) were partying, thought it was cool to be hanging out with older kids, when an 18 yr old took my innocence. I tried to stop it but it was too late and couldn’t. The boy I really liked, gave me the dirtiest look and still liked me but never forgave me; we dated off and on. I loved him and considered him my first love as a teen. I kept liking and chasing him for 3 yrs longer wheres he would never get serious with me because he felt I betrayed him. I moved a 5th time at 16, and he broke it off with me; I cried for 2 months. I never had a first true kid or teen experience. Next boy, I started to really like and after 8 months of him swoozing me just for one purpose, he ditched me. I really liked him, and after that I couldn’t take anymore. So a nice guy pulled up. I didn’t have any connection, feelings or real respect for him but he kept pursuing me; he forced it because he wanted to get what he wanted and I just went with it. Going through a bitter divorce, moving 5 times in 6 years, never able to make long friendships left me feeling like I was just killing my self esteem, and always made me feel like I was just trying to fit in, be accepted. No friends, no real boyfriend. It was lonely and sadly for both of us; I settled for someone that would keep me company. Maybe it was good for my husband too, but my past has stayed with me and depression is a constant battle. It’s not an illness, it’s a result of the choices I’ve made. Maybe there’s a reason. I have 2 kids; we’ve been stable for the kids for 16 years. I’m very compassionate and unselfish only thinking about making sure that they have a different life, a life of confidence, and close friendships that I didn’t have by staying put. However, it’s taking it’s toll, and my sadness has become so prevalent that I can’t always hide it from the kids and our family feels “unattached” like other families. We try, and I’m still in the marriage, and just now understanding fully the WHY I made those choices which is important, but I really can’t overcome the past when I’m still living it. My husband actually was much like me, moved around, abandoned by a mom that went crazy when he was five; his dad was alcoholic. My husband is mentally slow, as he had no parental support, was tormented by other kids when he was young, has VERY low self esteem, has addiction issues etc…his sisters know my sadness and thank me for saving their brother no matter what the outcome for the future; they know my loneliness and support me. Sorry for the long post!!

    Breann: What a story. Have you tried counseling? Sounds like many issues here remain unresolved and that you’re extremely curious about yourself and want to be happier, all of which would predict great benefit from therapy. Good luck!

    Alex

  • Anne R.

    It’s odd, I was just telling someone the painful events that happened to me when I was 7 and molested by a neighbor. It affected me greatly because I felt it was my fault and for the entire rest of my life I have struggled with feeling inadequate and not doing what is right and guilty. It changed everything and I eventually turned from “a good little girl” to a rebellious teenager. I never told anyone what happened then or several other painful episodes; I kept it all inside. But unlike others, what you say does not resonate with me. I cannot say that I have been a better person because of what happened because I actually developed a mentally defective way of thinking. My soul focus in life became how to avoid doing anything wrong to the point where I was afraid to do anything because anything could turn into a major problem and so I’ve held back from life out of fear. I can’t say I’m a better person for having this fear because this fear is now as much a part of me as breathing. It has a life of its own, its roots have grown into my blood stream and taken hold; the only way to get them out is to die so I don’t see how this whole thing can be good. Maybe I’m just too blind to see it but I don’t think so.

    Anne: What terrible violation. Please don’t take from my post that I would say you did anything to cause what happened to you. That wasn’t the point of my post at all. A terrible injustice was committed against you at a time you had no way to defend yourself and that past act has clearly left its mark. However, you have the opportunity to overcome the fear that episode instilled in you, to leap forward to new heights, if you challenge the problems in your thinking with which you’ve been left. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. Only once you’ve been able to transform the result of your molestation into a genuine benefit will you be able to say to yourself that you’ve won and free yourself from the chains in which it’s shackled you. You may not have told anyone then what happened to you but that you’ve developed the courage to do so now is a significant turn of events. If you haven’t already, I’d strongly recommend counseling to help you process what happened and free yourself from the trap your molester still has you stuck inside. Anything is possible!

    Alex

  • Dan Aylesworth

    How about a big big big laugh instead of my own personal story even though it is in many ways similar to your own 7th grade experience.

    But I can just spend a bit of time reading all these responses and know that we are far from alone in these experiences. It is what led me to want to become a teacher.

    Thank you so much for sharing this experience that most would just want to shy away from and forget.

    Daniel

  • Gilbert

    You couldn’t say it any better. I was amazed.

    I’m speechless.

  • [...] an epiphany that I used victimization as a strategy to get others to like me, as I wrote about in Breaking Free Of The Past, did I actually stop being a victim.  When that happened, people stopped trying to victimize me.  [...]

  • [...] children who terrorized me when I was in 7th grade (an experience I wrote about in an earlier post, Breaking Free Of The Past), wondering if I’d be able to forgive them for what they did to me.  I’d like [...]

  • Anne

    I had not seriously thought of thinking about past traumas as Necessary Fuel for growth. I shall certainly use this to work on my issues.

    You’re doing such wonderful work, Dr Lickerman (as others have said) on top of your day job, of trying to help people. As a grateful follower of this blog, I’d also like to say: Please don’t get demoralized when now and then a reader misreads your point totally.

    Thank you again and all the best to you and your loved ones.

    Anne: How nice of you to say that. That actually means a lot. Thank you.

    Alex

  • Now, when you said all events are neutral, it’s all about how you let it affect you, my question is, how in the hell can a terrible situation be neutral? Bad is bad, right?

  • […] children who terrorized me when I was in 7th grade (an experience I wrote about in an earlier post, Breaking Free Of The Past), wondering if I’d be able to forgive them for what they did to me.  I’d like […]

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