Your Past Is Your Present
If you want to heal your relationships with yourself and others, then understanding your origin stories is necessary. Your unhealed and unresolved past is directing your life today, but it doesn’t have to continue to do so.
Legacies, family secrets, and fears and insecurities get passed down the generational chain. Some of those things are overtly offered and chosen—like cherished holiday rituals, family mantras, or Tuesday taco night. But other traditions that get handed down are unhealthy, even insidious.
A woman who becomes increasingly critical of her daughter’s weight in the same way her mother criticized her. A father whose patience begins to shorten when his children don’t meet his unrealistic expectations, even though he hated his father for the rigidity and rules by which he felt controlled. An affair that is not to be spoken of for fear of judgment by others in the community, or the death of a young child that is never fully acknowledged and grieved.
The idea of looking back at your childhood can be downright daunting. It might scare you to think about what you might find, it can feel overwhelming to consider whether you’ll be able to handle what you do uncover, and it can feel like a distraction away from the very important issues at hand.
The reality is, most of us are more inclined to wait until we’re in crisis. And couples and individuals generally wait longer than they ought to before seeking support. Whether you’re in a relationship or not, you might notice yourself bargaining with yourself and looking for a simpler, easier way out.
I should be able to figure this out on my own. If I go to therapy, more bad things are going to get uncovered. My family did the best they could, and I don’t want to hate them by digging up unnecessary things.
But what if the digging into your origin story could yield the relief and the exact answers you’ve been looking for all along?
Naming Your Wound
We cover up our wounds because they’re hard to face. They’re emotional and raw, and they put a spotlight on things from the past that were hurtful and harmful. It’s easier to just get on with life than to go there. If we could move on without acknowledging the wound, people would probably sign up for that.
But simply moving on doesn’t work. You want to know why? Because wounds don’t just go away. They don’t take up less space because you turn away from them. They don’t mend on their own because you ignore them. They don’t heal because you avoid them.
You tell a friend how he should stop talking to his ex, but when yours reaches out, you text back immediately. You offer your sibling advice on how to mentally prep for a job interview, but you struggle to feel confident yourself when you’re in the same position. You promote self-love for others on your Instagram page, but you struggle to find anything you like about yourself behind closed doors.
If you give advice that you struggle to take or act on yourself, this is letting you know that there’s something unresolved playing out. Maybe you can’t take the self-love advice and offerings you give to others because you grew up believing no one loved you. What we preach but can’t practice is just another indicator that we must slow down and get curious about what is unhealed.
Think about a complaint or criticism you’ve uttered recently or one that you often offer. It doesn’t matter about who. Bring into focus something that you’ve been complaining about or critical of. It might sound something like: They’re so inconsiderate of my time. They’re so controlling. They’re always on their phone. They won’t ever show me who they’re texting. They spend all their money and don’t save for our future.
Now try the translation for yourself. Think about the last conflict or any recurring conflict that you have and consider the moments before the conflict started. Can you identify what wound got activated? And in what ways did you use or engage in conflict to try to be seen, heard, and understood? Did you become critical, defensive, contemptuous, controlling, or stonewall? Can you see what that was attempting to do for you? And how did that work out for you?
The wound that got activated was _____. I can see that now because _____. I move into conflict because _____. But what that winds up doing is _____. Okay, beautiful work. Now just a bit more. What I’m really feeling insecure about or questioning is _____. What I want the other person to really understand about me is _____. If I replace the criticism, defensiveness, contempt, control, or stonewalling with my emotional need, I learn that _____.
Remember, you’re hurt. The thing that happened, whatever it was, is activating something familiar for you. That’s raw. Can you connect to both the origin story and the reason this particular moment is so painful? Be gentle with yourself in this exploration.
Dr. Alexandra Solomon says that one of the most important aspects of healthy intimate communication is relational self-awareness. She describes this as “the ability and willingness to look honestly at what tends to set you off in your intimate relationship and how you handle yourself when you feel upset.” If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably engaged more in linear thinking, which internally might sound something like: You’re so insensitive, I’m so unreliable, you never do what I ask you to do, this wouldn’t have happened if you just cared more, this only happened because I’m such an idiot. This narrow-minded type of thinking assigns blame or shame. It loses sight of the rich and complex stories each of us has. And yet when we’re activated, it’s so easy to go straight there. Absolutely zero connection happens when you’re stuck in linear thinking.
On the other hand, systemic thinking takes into account our family origins and the past relationships that we’ve had, reminding us that there’s a complex and rich story present in every moment. It offers us this perspective about others as well. What a gift to be able to see ourselves and others through that lens. What a gift to understand that what’s happening right now is not just about this moment; it’s about every moment that predates it. Can you imagine how much would change in communication if you could remember that about yourself and the other person? Can you imagine the depth of compassion, empathy, or grace that could exist?
So if your partner criticizes you, you hear not just a critique about something that needs to happen at home, but also all the criticism you’ve experienced before—from your parents, former partners, and beyond. The reaction you might have makes much more sense through a systemic lens than a linear one. And if your partner is aware of this, they might be able to navigate this differently with you, finding a moment of connection in what could have been a devastating rupture.
thinking about our origin stories and seeing the complexity of these family systems is not meant to offer an excuse. It doesn’t make things okay when they’re not. But having context does offer something. When we start to communicate from this position, we move away from the details or the need to be victorious in arguments, and we move toward a deep knowing that we are both hurting and we’d both like to be seen, heard, and understood. This improves the quality of our communication.
When the adults around you don’t have healthy boundaries, you grow up in an environment that teaches you not to have healthy boundaries either. To choose yourself feels too uncomfortable, too foreign, too selfish. But healthy boundaries are not selfish, despite the fact that some argue they are. They’re self-loving and self-considerate, yes . . . but they’re respectful of other people as well. Those with healthy boundaries are open with those they trust. They don’t overshare, they value their own opinions and make room for others, they’re clear and direct communicators, comfortable saying no and hearing it without personalizing it, and they honor their values.
Nedra Glover Tawwab says, “Boundaries are meant to preserve relationships.” They are the invisible line between you and everything that isn’t you. It’s like having an invisible filtration system that helps you sort through what’s okay and what’s not okay in relationships. They help you get clear on the rules, expectations, and conditions of a relationship so that you can feel both close and connected to the other person but also safe, protected, and respected. Boundaries help you teach others how you want to be treated, what is acceptable or unacceptable, and they help you match your yeses with your yeses and your noes with your noes so resentment, burnout, frustration, and anger don’t take over.
Our boundary style can be person-specific. Whatever you’re noticing about yourself and your relationships, it’s time to step out of the cycle, move away from the illusion of the quick fix, and slowly implement the boundaries that will show your wound that your worthiness, belonging, prioritization, trust, and safety do not require you to live a life without any protection or with a false connection. You can feel safe and authentically connected, and in healthy dynamics, others will not just support that, they’ll celebrate that with you.