Getting Past The Past


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What to do when the past rears its ugly head into the present.

How many times have you found yourself in conversations where someone brings up their painful past? It's the broken record that comes up again and again and all the apologies in the world never seem to make it go away. So why do people do this? And more importantly, what can be done to put the past to rest?

Here's what's going on. When a person brings up the past, there is something they want or need in the present. It's evidence of what they need right now. It's a here-and-now problem, not a past problem. That is why apologizing doesn't work.


Regardless of what happened before, the person bringing up the past is feeling something similar now. They may feel hurt, unloved, insecure, misunderstood, or distrustful right now just like they felt before. They are trying to communicate to you what they need right now. Most likely, what they need is for you to understand how they feel in the present or what they need to change.

Unfortunately, many people do not communicate their needs directly. Some people may not even know what they need. Instead, many people express their needs in the form of complaints. "I need more attention" may come out as, "You never spend time with me," which would naturally cause you to feel defensive. But defending yourself won't work because the issue isn't really about you. 8 Tips To Help Console A Grieving Friend

If you say, "I spend time with you," get ready for the evidence to show up. "No, you don't. We were going to spend Sunday together but you ended up spending all day working on your car. And last week, you worked late almost every night. You know this is just like when you promised me that we were going to go on vacation three years ago but we never went because you were too busy" Here comes the dreaded past again ...  the one thing you can never live down. But you can live it down by getting to the present. Here's how:

1. Validate and acknowledge the past. Whatever the other person is upset about, own it and take responsibility even if you don't agree. "I promised you that trip and I shouldn't have broken my promise," or "I worked on the car and didn't spend time with you." The sooner you own it, the faster you will get to the next step of solving the current problem. You have to acknowledge the other person's hurt in order for them to feel safe that you understand what hurt them and trust that they won't get hurt again. The sooner you own it, the sooner you can heal it.

2. Don't defend yourself. If you defend yourself, the upset person will often get more upset because they are trying to communicate something real about how they feel through their example. If you won’t acknowledge their example, they often get more worked up trying to get their point across to you or completely shut down. Don't make them wrong. This isn't about who's right and who's wrong. It's about understanding how they feel right now, so that hopefully, how they feel can change. "You feel let down and disappointed by me again." Yes! Now you're getting it.

Article contributed by
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Faith Deeter, MFT


Faith Deeter, MFT

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Location: Lompoc, CA
Credentials: MFT
Specialties: Couples/Marital Issues, Life Management, Parenting
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