Sometimes I imagine past trauma as one of those Choose-Your-Own Adventure situations, where turning to page XYZ essentially puts me back in a sad loop and where going forward to page ABC gets me out of my predicament. This is not to say that we can control our past trauma in that way, but we all have some agency when it comes to how we deal with it. Going back to look at a painful moment and assess it is good because it allows us to learn more about ourselves – learning from our pain is always valuable and useful and informs how we deal with things in the future. On the other hand, going back repeatedly and willfully putting ourselves back into the painful place without examining the solution might stunt our growth and keep us in a vicious cycle of trauma-trigger and retraumatization. For example, going over the experience that I had as a child when I revealed to my friends that I was adopted just for the sake of dwelling on my resentment and that past is not going to help me get over that resentment. Just the opposite – most likely, I will retraumatize myself and experience new-old pain where I will have wasted a great opportunity to heal instead. Going back to examine what happened, how I reacted, how that experience affects me today, what I learned from that experience, and then choosing to move on from it, is going to foster growth.
I was thinking about a little habit that I have when I find myself wanting to feel deeper emotions – putting on music that makes me nostalgic and sad (usually the Blues). I do this because sometimes I have a hard time accessing these emotions, and feeling numb about something that I should feel upset over can be just as upsetting. I put on sad/ nostalgic music in order to bring myself back to feeling sad in a way that is safe and controlled and – most importantly – brought on by myself (where I am not a victim to endless triggers). Once I feel that I’ve honored the moment enough I am able to move on from it. Not always, sometimes I need a few visits like that, but the idea is that each time is a little less painful and a little more informative. I think of those controlled visits to the past as expansion of my identity. The expansion helps me understand how I react to certain things, and it also teaches me how to get myself out of my negative reactions. In many ways, this is something that clients do with their therapists, where they access painful aspects of their life in the presence of a professional who is safe (or with a loved one you can trust).
I often think to myself, “Feed the expansion and not the pain,” whenever I find myself dwelling on something that affects my balance and mood. Do I need to go to that place of pain? And if I do, what am I learning from going there? Do I have resources to help me recover once I’m done visiting the XYZ pages of my adventure? If the answer is yes to all three, then by all means, I allow myself to pay a little visit. If the answer is no, then the reason is probably just that my desire to revisit is probably just that human tendency that we all have to dwell (on the past). I think many of us are under the illusion that by visiting those moments we can actually figure them out, but this is rarely the case – those moments happened and there’s no way to change the past, and the only thing that we can change is our reaction to it. A reaction where you let the past upset you again, repeatedly, means that perhaps it’s not safe or productive to revisit and none of it contributes to our growth. This is what I mean by feeding our expansion, which is allowing yourself to thrive and giving all that good energy to the place and feeling that will only double it.