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 often 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.
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.
3. Find out what the person needs from you. If they know what they need, they will tell you. Some people, however, may not know what they need. They may tell you there is nothing you can do now but don’t believe that. The reason they are telling you is because they do want you to do something differently now. Your job is to find out what it is. Likely, they may simply need to know, believe, and trust that you understand whatever you did before that hurt them and are committed to earnest effort in changing the behavior.
4. Act on it. Once you know what they need, act on it as soon as possible. If, “You only care about your job,” means, “I need more time and attention from you,” act on that information as soon as you can. Make a plan with them. “Will you have dinner with me tonight?” or “Do you have any time today to do something fun together?” Acting on the information sends the message that you get it and that the other person’s needs are important to you. The more immediate you are, the better.
5. Take a time-out. If you can’t find what they need now or if it feels like the person’s only agenda is to beat you to a pulp, don’t feel badly about taking a time-out if needed. Being another person’s emotional punching bag isn’t good for you and it isn’t good for them. Following reasonable rules of engagement for “fair fighting” is important to avoid damaging each other. Let them know that you will talk about this later in the day and invite them that you really want to know what they need. While setting a limit may upset them even more, interrupting old patterns is an opportunity for change so learning how to calmly set limits while still inviting solutions is a good skill to learn.
6. Identify your needs. If you are the person who can’t seem to get over the past, do your best to identify what you need now. Every time your mind pulls you to the past, ask yourself what you need in the present. Talking with a trusted friend or writing about your feelings may help you identify your needs. The next step is learning how to get your current needs met. There are many ways to do so.
Bringing up the past is rarely a comfortable experience for either party, but there are reasons people do it. Most often, people do it when they are experiencing the same sort of feelings now as they did then. They do it when they are trying to communicate what they need and are looking for solutions to feel better. The sooner you can understand what is going on and do your best to meet the need in the present moment, the better. No one can do anything to change the past. We can only do our best to handle the current situation and move forward.
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 6 Mar 2012
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Experts, Y. (2011). 6 Ways to Overcome Your Painful Past. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 17, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/11/17/6-ways-to-overcome-your-painful-past/