Have you ever found yourself in a relationship or friendship with someone that reminds you of another person from your past? Perhaps a parent, or sibling, or childhood friend? For example, maybe you had a hypercritical mother and end up in a relationship with a man who tends to criticise, or your father was quiet and didn’t talk about his feelings and your husband is eerily similar. You may find yourself replaying an old role from long ago and wondering if it’s ever possible to completely leave the past behind.
Why does this happen, and what can we do about it? I asked Dr Rachel Allan a counselling psychologist in the UK. She says,
‘’Our relationship experiences in infancy and childhood create a template for how we approach relationships throughout our lives. We then carry those templates with us into adulthood and can find ourselves enacting the same dynamics. This means we can find ourselves unconsciously pulled into repeating and replaying those familiar patterns time and time again.’’
This may sound pretty depressing. However sometimes this tendency can allow us opportunities to work through baggage from the past in order to grow and evolve. How exactly can we do this?
Firstly, we need to become aware of what’s going on. Allan says that the ‘shift from unconscious to conscious awareness is important.’ Instead of simply replaying these familiar templates, we need to examine our relationships.
Therapy, talking it through with an understanding friend, or journaling can help us become aware of ways in which we might be in an experience that resembles something from the past.
Dr. Wyatt Fisher, licensed clinical psychologist and marriage counsellor from Boulder Colorado, says that from time to time we should, ‘’take periodic inventory of the people we allow into our lives to see if they are destructive or constructive influences. A destructive relationship will make us feel anxious, insecure, and uncomfortable and is a sign we need to move on.’’
This isn’t always a clear-cut decision. It’s important to distinguish if the relationship difficulty really lies in the present, or in the challenge of dealing with memories that are being triggered from the past.
In his book When The Past is Present psychotherapist David Richo, defines transference as a ‘compulsion to return to our past in order to clear up emotionally backlogged business.’
You may be drawn to certain relationships in or situations in order to heal, and it may be that the real problem isn’t in the present. For example, if a bossy friend reminds you of being bullied as a child, you may find it hard to say no to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the friendship is over. It might just be a case of needing to talk through what happened in childhood, have a good cry, and heal from it. This process can untangle the past from the present so you are more confident in setting boundaries.
One thing Lesli Doares, a couples consultant and coach points out is that in order for healing to take place a person must be ‘enough like our family member so that we feel comfortable with them, but if they are different enough, it gives us the opportunity to resolve the old issues.’ Doares says that ‘if they are too much the same, then it’s just a repeat of the old family issues, and nothing changes. If it feels like we’re back on the hamster wheel with all the old distress, then it’s better for the relationship to end. ’
Cultivating mindfulness can help the healing present by bringing yourself back to the present and letting go of past stories. Meditation, yoga, or anything else that helps you be more grounded can allow you to see more clearly what’s really going on in the moment, free of the distortion of past hurts.
As you evolve your reactions to present situations may be different, as you free yourself from old roles and templates. Your relationships may change too, and there may be some that you let go of. It’s all part of the natural process of healing and growth.