As a historian I’m pretty happy dwelling in the past. But, as a historian I also know that the narrative that you construct about the past determines the power that it has over you.
The Lion King is a good example of this. Simba runs away when his uncle convinces him he is responsible for his father’s death. He lives in the jungle with Timon and Pumba, eating grubs, learning to swim in pools, all very non-lion activities. While he is away, his uncle Scar takes over the Pridelands and destroys them. Years later, when Simba is grown, Rafiki the wise baboon confronts him about returning to the Pridelands.
Simba says: Going back means I’ll have to face my past. I’ve been hiding from it for so long. Then Rafiki hits him on the head…
This is perhaps one of the most important lessons we can learn about our own pasts. It comes down to perception and the narrative we tell ourselves.
Our past can be wonderful, it can be painful. It can even be a bit banal. Our past experiences shape us but we can control what we we let it do. We don’t have to let it control us.
Happy pasts influence us in a different way from problematic ones. They can fortify us with confidence, a belief that things will (on the whole) work out, an unconscious belief that people are mostly nice and that as pretty good people good things will happen to us. These are good narratives and can be very helpful – there is always the possibility that we might be so used to things working out that we don’t have good strategies for when they don’t, but on the whole these are not narratives we have to work to change.
Unhappy pasts on the other hand…. Here are a few alternative narratives that we construct (or can construct) about the bad things that happen to us.
Narrative One: I’m a bad person.
Okay, so that’s a bit over the top but it’s the root feeling behind ‘I’m a failure, I always make mistakes, I deserve the things that are happening to me, if only I’d done things differently, I am rubbish” and all the other negative things we tell ourselves. We use our past mistakes, or feelings, or the way other people treated us as great big sticks to beat ourselves up with. Of course, the problem with sticks is they don’t just hurt, but they can trip you up. Stop you from going where you need to be.
The problem with this narrative is that you’re not only being unkind to yourself but you’re creating a massive obstacle to the path ahead. It is supremely unhelpful.
Narrative Two: I never succeed so why even try?
I see this a lot with students. Past failure or difficulty teaches us that we aren’t good at something. This can end up giving us an excuse – why bother doing something when the outcome (according to the past) is predetermined? We all know that, regardless of how understandable this is, it isn’t helpful.
Narrative Three: Everything was so awful and painful its easier and okay to ignore it.
There’s nothing wrong with not dwelling on painful memories. Sometimes when things really can’t be changed, and there are no lessons we can learn from it, things can just stay buried.
Of course, the problem is that painful events do still influence us. If we don’t face how they have shaped us to experience our present in different ways, then we might continue with old behaviours or reactions that don’t give us the best opportunities to move forward.
Narrative Four: I’m a strong person who can overcome difficult times
This is the counterpoint to the negative narratives. It arises from the same difficult times or mistakes that the first three do, but it casts them in a different light, a different perspective. This is where we look back at the embarrassing moments, the dark moments, the times we cried ourselves to sleep, and we see through the gloom to the strength inside. To the person who got up every day and kept going, even through the worst of times. We see the person who was having a bad day and still smiled at the cashier in the petrol station. We see the person who is just human and so makes mistakes, we see the good intentions behind the times we stuffed up. We see the person who is learning. When we look at ourselves with the same positive lens that we look at others, we can construct a narrative of overcoming, rather than of failure.
This is a much more helpful narrative. It casts us as strong, powerful, agents of change. It sees that things might happen to us but we can rise above it – even if only through attitude or simply by surviving it. Survival is pretty admirable.
Narrative Five: I stuffed up but I can see how to avoid that next time.
This is one of the most important lessons to learn. Making a mistake, stuffing up, doesn’t have to be the end. Just like Simba, we can learn from the past. This is a point that I feel I have finally reached. Last year wasn’t great for me in a number of ways, and I slid back from a lot of good habits into a lot of bad ones. For the first time ever, I am not being nasty to myself about it. I’m not being too soft either, I’m definitely being pretty blunt with myself. But I am aiming to learn from it – there were certain points in the year, stressful times, where things went out of control. These points are bound to happen this year too – they’re part of the job – so I’m trying to learn from last year and plan for those times so I don’t fall back again. This is much more helpful than simply beating myself up and being hateful to myself.
It isn’t always easy to overcome the past or to release the power it has, but when we can identify the narratives that we have spun we have a greater chance of changing them, and of moving forward into a different future.