About Freeing Ourselves from the Past (in Recovery)

For as sophisticated as we like to believe we are, the truth is people are very simple creatures. Our perspectives are formed primarily by past experiences. We form simple and powerful associations in our childhoods and if these occur consistently, they become fixed in our minds as expectations.

Despite the millions of changes that occur in the course of recovery; the last thing we change are our expectations. No matter how good things become we expect the most painful parts of our past to recur in some life-long pattern of déjà vu.

Example: I had one of those families that made it a point to move frequently. Many times, just as I’d started to make actual friends, it was time to leave again. I came to associate saying goodbye with heartache and anxiety.

I noticed this dynamic as a therapist. I’ve served a lot of people who made tremendous gains, changed their lives, and then when I knew our work was almost done, they’d just stop coming to their appointments. I got it – saying goodbye was always a bad thing and they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

Through the course of my own healing, I have been able to not only know, but also accept that my expectations must change. Consciously choosing them liberates me. I become progressively less limited by my past experiences and live more authentically in the present.

That’s not always easy.

I get to show up and be present for the people I love today, even when to do so is bittersweet. I said goodbye to a very dear friend today – someone I’ve worked very closely with for many years. I am simultaneously joyful for her change and heartbroken for my loss. It’s a profound mix of emotions, but I get to express them instead of bottling them up. I get to share with my friend how much they mean to me and I get to grieve instead of simply detaching.

Too often, when we say we’ve let go of the past, what we really mean is we just work really hard not to think about it. This means continuing to carry “baggage” but it also means that our past isn’t truly over. As long as our past experiences limit us in the present, we are not free.