How To Change The Way You See Your Past — And Reclaim Your Future

Photo: Alones / 
woman with pink hair and hat, looking slightly away

Many things contribute to the way we define ourselves. Some we have no choice on, like where you’re born, while others we get to define, like an affiliation with a political party.

We tend to think of the events of our past as something in the “no choice” category. They happened and we can’t change how it’s affected us, right? But what if you can change the way your past impacts your identity?

How would you know what kind of friends you prefer, what type of work you enjoy, or what you like in a partner until you’ve given it a try? From the foods we love to the situations that are uncomfortable, it’s all information we picked up through past experience.

Past experiences become the lens through which we view life and ourselves.

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Choose a New Perspective

Have you ever thought you didn’t like a type of food, then you tried it again, as an adult, and found you like it now? 

Changing your mind about Brussels sprouts feels like a far cry from how getting bullied on the playground might have impacted the person you’ve become. Adding something to the possibilities of what to eat for dinner is not the same as having a hard time trusting people again. When it comes to your identity - the way you see yourself - you have options. 

First, explore the negative impacts of a past experience. Start by asking yourself how an experience has made you see yourself. Maybe getting bullied on the playground made you feel different from other people. Maybe you have a hard time expressing yourself now, or maybe you identify as having low self-esteem.  

You can’t change the events of the past, but you can tell yourself a different story about it. A story where you’re the hero. Look for ways you have grown from the experience. How have you taken that negative period from your past and made it into a strength? 

You may be sensitive about being sure others are included when you’re in a meeting at work or during a social gathering. Perhaps you’ve become an advocate for underrepresented individuals. Maybe you’re generally more compassionate towards the feelings of others. These are built-in strengths that have become positive parts of your identity as a result of the past.

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You’re the hero of this story

Finding strengths you’ve picked up due to the past can sometimes feel a little like rewarding the person or people who created the negative situation — but it’s not. It’s not about appreciating the individual for their bad acts. It’s appreciating yourself for making lemonade out of the lemons you were handed. 

You don’t have to feel grateful for people who have hurt you.

You get to feel strong for the ways you’ve improved, despite those bad actors. 

Continuing to focus on how you were bullied, for example, leads to feelings that something is wrong or different about you. You may also have feelings of anger, hurt, or resentment toward the person or people who treated you badly. Focusing on that part of the story doesn’t build positive feelings about yourself. However, if you shift focus to the parts of you that are stronger, more compassionate, and more resilient, now you have all the elements of a story that you get to control.

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A change for the better 

This is not about denial or changing the facts. It’s okay to recognize the feelings that come up when thinking about difficult past events.

At the same time, though, you can adopt a positive outlook about yourself as a result. This will encourage you to take on a new identity, one where you feel strong and confident. One where you see the skills you’ve learned and ways you’ve become a better version of yourself.

You’re the one in control of this narrative. You get to decide which part of the story to place focus on. Which feels better: feeling different, rejected, and unable to control the situation or being adaptable, inclusive, and able to move forward?

The very act of putting the spotlight on the positive ways you’ve turned the past around is an act of control. You’re in charge of how you see yourself. Finding the skills you’ve developed through overcoming your past puts you back in the driver’s seat. It puts you on the road toward a positive self-identity.

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Finding the better story

The story we tell ourselves about who we are and how we are is a mindset. A mindset is a habitual perspective - a story we tell ourselves over and over. It is a way of seeing things. 

The good news is, habits are changeable. It just takes a little commitment. Your perspective of your identity is the foundation of your self-esteem. Many people want to improve their sense of confidence and self-esteem. One powerful way of doing that is to develop a new perspective, or habit of mind, on who you are as a result of your past. 

No matter how negatively a past experience has impacted you, the very fact that you’re still here makes you a survivor. Even if you struggle, your tenacity allows you to keep going. 

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Writing a new story of you

Here are some ways to uncover the positive elements of your story.

  • List a few of the most pivotal moments from your past.

What experiences negatively impacted you the most? What events cause you to act or react in certain ways today?

  • Thinking about those negative experiences, how has it improved the ways you see others?

For example, maybe you’re more compassionate and understanding toward others who are going through something similar. Perhaps, you’ve become more patient with people. You might be quick to make newcomers feel included because you grew up feeling shy. Or, maybe you’re a good listener because of something you’ve gone through.

  • How have these experiences helped you appreciate things?

Maybe you sought solace in nature or with animals and now you’re an animal lover or enjoy natural spaces.

  • What strengths or skills have you developed as a result of those negative past events?

Are you a good planner, as a result of growing up in a chaotic house? Maybe, you’re a natural peacekeeper due to feuding parents

  • What are some of the positive experiences from your past?

Our built-in negativity bias puts the focus on the hard times. What positive experiences allowed you to grow and flourish in ways you’re still experiencing today?

Remember, it doesn’t mean you need to feel glad for past difficulties, especially if you were victimized. You’re not telling the person or circumstances that what happened is okay. Instead, you’re choosing to view yourself as a strong, resilient survivor. You’re turning lemons into lemonade, not for them, but for yourself.

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Nicole Corbett is a certified hypnotherapist and shamanic healer who combines spiritual and intuitive traditions with hypnosis to help clients reframe and release old patterns.