Learning and Growing from Our Past

learning and growing from our past

So many of are plagued by painful past experiences. Regardless of what happened, we can find ourselves stuck in the past. This creates much sober suffering (which is a wonderful term coined by Fred Holmquist from the Dan Anderson Renewal Center at the Betty Ford Hazelden Center in Minnesota). Why? Because we end up reacting the present though it were our past. This creates a lot of trouble because it interferes with our ability to cope with what is. When we are stuck in the past we can’t deal well with what is going on now.

It is easy to conclude that sober suffering means that something is wrong with our recovery. But this is a deadly mistake. What will determine if something is wrong with our recovery is how we respond to what is happening. I’ve said this many times in my writings, “The problem is not the problem, the problem is how we cope with the problem.” Recovery doesn’t mean we we will be free of problems. It means that we will discover new ways of dealing with them. We will learn how to live life on life’s terms rather than expect life to conform to our expectations.
The good news is that regardless of what caused so much pain in our lives, whether it be a significant loss, physical or verbal abuse, neglect, over indulgence, abandonment, adult-child sexual molestation, rape, or some other unspeakable traumas – we can always grow from the experience.

But in order to grow from these experiences we need to learn how to claim our experience instead of letting our experience claim us. Thom Rutledge, a brilliant author and therapist, put it this way, “Learn from the past, and then get the hell out of there!” He’s right on. Many of us are stuck in the past and don’t know how to get the hell out of there. I hope to give you a few tips on how to release the past and get on with living here and now.

If we are going to grow from a traumatic experience we need to learn how to digest the experiences we had in the past. Today there is much talk about a phenomenon that we have called “Post Traumatic Growth.” PTG is defined as the growth that can take place when we properly digest the traumatic experience. Let’s talk about what we need to do to properly digest a traumas or any other painful and disturbing experience.

The Psychological Imperative Mirrors the Biological Imperative

The biological imperative involves a process that operates outside of our awareness or unconsciously. It is governed by the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is a division of the peripheral nervous system which influences the functioning of internal organs. The autonomic nervous system is a control system that regulates bodily functions such as the heart rate, digestion, body temperature, respiratory rate, pupillary response, urination, and sexual arousal. The autonomic nervous system moves us to satisfy a biological need or gratify a desire. It is mobilized into action by needs or desires.

For the purpose of this discussion I will focus on the digestive process. When we are hungry we make contact with our environment to satisfy this need. We ingest food to satisfy our hunger. What happens next is quite fascinating. Our body takes what was not us (food), and makes it us (this is called assimilation). It separates what is nurturing from what is not. It does this by breaking down the food so we can digest it.

The first thing that happens in the digestive process is biting and chewing. The better we chew up our food the more we aid the digestive process. After we chew up our food and swallow it, it moves into the digestive track where it is further broken down for digestion. Our stomach releases certain acids and enzymes to begin the process of separating what our body needs from what it does not need. Once the food is precessed by our stomachs and broken down into smaller molecules it moves through the small and a large intestines where nutrients are absorbed into our bodies and where the waste, that which won’t become us, is moved through the intestines to our bladder or anus to be eliminated.

It seems strange to say this but we take what we need and discard the rest. When we absorb the nutrients from the food we eat it is no longer alien to us, it becomes us and we are indistinguishable from the nutrient that has become absorbed into our bodies. If we eat something that is toxic our bodies will forego the entire process and eject the toxins by inducing either vomiting or diarrhea or both.

Our psychological imperative operates along the same parameters. If we digest our experiences, which means to chew it up, digest it, and separate psychologically what can nurture and get rid of the rest. If we allow ourselves to re-experience the traumas we can begin to digest it or re-solve it. We will take what can grow us from the experience and eliminate the rest. But we will need to digest the experience, chew it up and break it down to separate what will nurture us from what needs to be eliminated. There is no easier softer way.

In order to grow from a traumatic experience we need to go back and relive it but this time we take care of the unfinished business. We say what we didn’t dare say. We stand for ourselves as we wished we could have. If we need to we shout, scream, cry, rage, declare we will never forgive the person who violated us. We strive to find the words that will best reflect what we needed to say but didn’t because we either didn’t dare or couldn’t because we were so terrified. When an experience is really toxic we may even need to vomit to rid of selves of the toxins. This is the process that will help us digest a traumatic experience. This is the process that will help us separate what will grow us from what won’t.

The bottom line is that we need to trust ourselves – our organismic wisdom – that will move us toward resolutions. We need to get out of our own way and let go and let God. Doing this alone is not recommended. We need a guide, a good therapist, who can help us process our experience.

Remember recovery is about the discovery of new possibilities.

Allen Berger bio