A Haunted Life

Both in my personal and professional lives, I’ve continually seen examples of past events influencing the present. This doesn’t surprise me, as our present reality is rarely one we think to create ourselves. This despite the fact that we absolutely can do so. More often, it is the product of years of experiences, both pleasurable and challenging, with seemingly endless examples of triumphs, disappointments, frustrations, and beauty. However we have turned out, as some view it (that’s a little passive for my taste – I prefer to think of it as “How we interpreted that sum of circumstances, and the ultimate meaning we’ve assigned to that interpretation”), is often based largely on our past. Many of us never notice this, as our own experience is a bit like looking at life through a fish bowl – distorted, but if it’s all we know, all we can see, we tend to assume that perception is “real”. I won’t even delve into the fact that among this mass of experiences, many of which contradict one another, we often choose a theme, a perspective, through which to filter the others. In other words, as Milton Erickson MD pointed out, we necessarily must delete a good portion of our experience in order to make sense of the rest. So those memories are seldom, if ever, even an accurate representation of our history. Still, I want to focus on another aspect of our present reality and how it can become “haunted”.

The most common example of this is when an unpleasant experience lingers with us. You might go so far–though I wouldn’t recommend it–and say that it “scarred” you for life! This is in no way to diminish the significance of a painful or wonderful experience you may have had. Most of us have experienced some form of traumatic life event, whether in our adult lives or as a child, where the trauma may have imprinted itself on our developing minds in ways it never could have to an adult. These may be incredibly painful memories for us, And beginning to forget the suffering we experienced may now be too difficult to consider just yet.  I respect where you have been and the joys as well as the pain you have experienced. My aim is not to make you forget unpleasantness, only remembering the lessons, the joy, and the important parts of every experience.

More importantly, when a bad memory has served its purpose, it has taught you the life lesson you sought, given you the life experience you needed, my suggestion would be that simply clinging to the painful aspects of the memory may no longer be in your best interest. Its useful life could have expired, and it may be time to release its ghost. Let’s use a simple example to which most of us can related. You had a painful experience as a child at school. It may have been your first time dealing with a large group of children, some of whom may have been your age, some older, some younger than you. Let’s consider that you are in no way attacked or victimized, only embarrassed. Let’s say you fall off a swing on the playground. You were hurt, perhaps you cried, but instead of the compassion and assistance you may have gotten from your parents, some of the other kids laughed at you. This embarrassment may have been a somewhat new experience for you, that at home, you could trust that you would be safe from ridicule (and your own “ghost” may be that in fact you were not safe from such things at home). For some children, such an experience could be quite traumatic, as the need for acceptance by our peers emerges early in our development. So with this alternative reaction, ridicule, we might find ourselves too fearful or embarrassed to take any risks on the playground, avoiding any likelihood of making a fool of ourselves again. That would be a common reaction.

But let’s say that this strategy works for you. We might call that a functional strategy, for whether good or bad, desirable or not, healthy or not, it does succeed in minimizing our chances for ridicule when being clumsy or foolish. What if we keep that strategy in check, so to speak, using it only on the playground, or in high-risk situations? What, on the other hand, if we begin to generalize that strategy and use it everywhere? Could it eventually lead to our being unwilling to trying out for sports? Social activities? Could it make us too shy in high school to ask someone we like to the big dance? Could it develop long-term social awkwardness? Not finding and pursuing the love of our lives? Choosing a career path we consider safer? This happens all the time. I actually knew a man who in high school took great pride in excelling at everything he did. He planned great things for his future, being a star athlete and student. Then disaster struck. He got a B. In trying to cope with his perceived failure, he made choices similar to our example above – he began choosing classes that were less challenging, and while he still went to college, he choose a much less difficult major than he had planned. His strategy was, I suppose, functional – he never got less than an A again. But he now makes a fraction of the money he would have, had he followed his original career path, gets much less respect and recognition for his job, and has in many ways settled for less in his personal and professional lives. The “ghost” of that “B” grade has haunted him his entire adult life.

Our challenge is to put things into perspective. Yes, the experience we had may have been awful at the time, and its repercussions may very well still affect us today. Many of these terrible experiences are arguably much more profound than the two examples we have so far examined. I’ve known rape survivors, people who as children were molested or otherwise abused, people who’ve suffered what no one should ever have to endure. But the question we have to ask is – Once we acknowledge that our trauma has occurred, can we similarly acknowledge that it’s ‘over’? What does that mean? Let’s say you were kidnapped as a child and abused for months. No one would likely dispute that you have endured a horrible experience. But at some point, you escaped, were released, rescued, etc. Or you would not likely be reading this right now. So it’s “over”, correct?

There are important life lessons to take from a painful experience. Sometimes it’s only the obvious – how to avoid going through that experience again. But sometimes the learning is much more subtle, something another person, one who didn’t experience the same thing, might overlook. Whatever the lesson is, by all means, learn it. The pain, the fear, the upset, was only there in the first place to help you recognize a lesson was coming. So first learn that lesson. And then consider that the time to begin forgetting all the pain, its usefulness having passed, is almost here now. When the time comes to actually let go of that ghost, to send it away, be ready to do so. Because if anywhere at all, ghosts belong in old, creepy houses…not your life!