“My mom passed out from drinking every night.”
“My dad hit me if I didn’t get straight As.”
“I hoard stuff because I grew up poor.”
Our childhood circumstances do affect us in many powerful ways. We should not glibly gloss over the past and thereby try to repress our anger, pain, or our heartfelt desires.
Yet we often create a story around our upbringing that actually constrains our lives by turning us into a lifelong victim.
Living in the past
Our interpretation of what happened and why we ended up the way we are is partly a work of fiction. More importantly, when we repeat the same stories to ourselves and others, we trap ourselves into being victims of our past.
Why do people reiterate the same simplistic, deterministic stories that interfere with their free will and personal responsibility, boring themselves and others? Because it is easy and comforting to do so. It gets us off the hook for taking responsibility for our lives. It is difficult and challenging to use fresh thinking instead of making excuses for our current situation by living in the past.
Of course you had bad luck in having an abusive parent, and no child is responsible for the bad behavior of their parent. Nonetheless we do grow up and develop strength and capabilities that allow us to make choices that determine a new path for our future.
Yes, some people had a tougher childhood than others. Yet the best way for all people to free themselves from the shackles of the past is by freeing themselves from their victim story. This means taking personal responsibility for the choices we make in life.
Once we grow up, we have the choice to let go of the histories we cling to. Rather than thinking of yourself as a victim of your family dysfunction, you could think of yourself as someone who has learned important lessons during childhood, finding inner courage and resilience as a result. You could view your experience of pain and hardship as the way in which you developed your inner strength and your dreams.
You can use your creative intelligence and wisdom to look at your life through a new prism. When you transform the story about your past, you create an opportunity to direct your future. By becoming one who has successfully overcome past challenges, you invite inner strength and vitality into your life.
We should continue to beware of clinging to our new story, however, even if it is one of redemption, recovery, or triumph over wrong-doing. Any story reiterated automatically becomes stale and thus prevents evolution, innovation, and inspiration in our lives.
Say you have overcome a miserable childhood by developing tremendous optimism. In general this will be a productive and positive way to improve your life. However, if tackling everything with optimism becomes the new story with which you identify, it may prevent you from becoming angry, having boundaries, making a complaint, or making an important change. Your story of optimism only allows you to conquer any difficult circumstances with a positive attitude. But even such a positive outlook can lead to naiveté, possible harm, and lack of growth when it is the only tool in your tool box. Always keep a place for standing up for yourself.
Therefore, it is wise not to allow one particular story to become the rigid definition of who you are, no matter how positive that story may appear to be.
Life is about evolution.
by Alison Poulsen, PhD