When the Past is Present

“Don’t let yesterday use up too much of today.”

~Cherokee Indian Proverb

As children we absorb experiences and information around us without necessarily having the ability or maturity to defend ourselves and our best interests against it, or to make complete rational sense of it at the time.  This is particularly true of behaviours and emotions both expressed and unexpressed in the relationships around us when we are children, as well as our own emotional responses to these relationships.  As such, many experiences that we have as young people can be carried into adulthood in an unresolved state within us: events that we witnessed, that impacted upon us, sometimes even before we had words to even describe what we heard, saw or felt.  And often before we are able to even distinguish what experiences are ours and which the responsibility of others with whom we may be in contact.


As we mature these unresolved states, confused responsibilities, conflicts and resulting mixed feelings from what we may have encountered, can be carried as powerful emotional experiences like shame, fear, disaffirmations or devaluing.  These can take the form of internal conflicts expressed via the experience of ambivalence and manifesting in the choices we make in adult relationships.  Ambivalence, for example, is the experience of holding two seemingly irreconcilable needs or wishes within ourselves, so that we struggle to choose one.  Effectively, our unmet needs and unresolved, internalised conflicts become the drivers of our choices of partner, friends, careers, shaping our general life path.  It is only when we begin to recognise patterns and connections between early life experiences and the apparent ‘coincidences’ or repeated mistakes that we see in our adult lives that we begin to suspect something is going on beyond our immediate awareness and understanding.

A few of the many examples of experiences that may remain unresolved into adulthood:

  • early abandonment or rejection
  • traumatic childhood experiences
  • all forms of abuse
  • loss
  • emotionally unavailable parent or care-giver
  • school difficulties and bullying
  • poor or manipulative parenting
  • dishonest, secretive or truth-stifling environments
  • stressful or unstable environments (e.g. poverty, violence, housing insecurity)
  • family scapegoating
  • parental conflict and domestic violence
  • parental alcoholism, promiscuity, substance misuse
  • divorce and separation

Existential Analysis can help us see how our choices in life can be governed by our early needs to resolve conflicts which aren’t ours, make sense of ambiguity in others, mixed messages or abuse, find justice in trauma we may have suffered, and other emotional puzzles that can emerge in patterns of difficult relationships and struggle years or decades later as adults.  It can often be too much to figure out on our own, or by trial and error, so Analysis can permit us the space to clarify and fully understand the wider framework within which we make choices in the present as we seek, through force of habit and need, to resolve issues and needs that may remain unmet from the past.

Some of the signs that we may be wrestling with unresolved issues from our past:

  • repeated poor choices of partner
  • destructive patterns of behaviour or lifestyle
  • alcoholism, gambling and substance misuse
  • infidelity and betrayal
  • worry, depression and anxiety
  • ‘not knowing who I am’
  • ‘people pleasing’
  • personal inauthenticity
  • chronic insecurity
  • co-dependent or destructive relationship choices
  • volatile, histrionic or unstable relationships or behaviours
  • self-criticism, self-harming or risk-taking behaviour
  • over- or under-estimation of self
  • difficulty making decisions

When we begin to recognise that our difficulties in the present may be the consequence of our inchoate attempts to resolve past situations we can take steps to resolving unmet needs directly.  Resolving old needs and expressing old, pent-up emotions can allow us to heal, grow and mature as individuals and be better prepared to cope with or avoid adversity in the future.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. jim- says:

    I have a 19 year old adopted daughter (from birth) who really grew up in a nearly perfect life. I know we’re not perfect people, but the setting, really a calm life in the country with horses and nature in droves—Almost a fairy tale. She is however, her birth mother. The girl was raised to be a queen but lives in a fifth wheel now, serial boyfriends, drug addiction and is a master manipulator. She got married on the 4th to her equal after a three month relationship. Do you think genetics plays a role in this behavior. It’s not really on the list, but from the time she was very little her life has been lie after lie.
    The best info of the day was to be open about her being adopted to avoid trauma later in life. Personally I think it affected her negatively. If I had it to do-over, it would have been a lifetime secret. She will go to great lengths to concoct a lie when the truth would do her better.
    Ps—She was born in a prison hospital addicted to heroine. We stayed 30 days with her in the PICU til she was done with withdrawals and stable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Stephen says:

      Hi Jim, good to hear from you. By sheer ‘coincidence’ I added a couple of things seconds before reading your comment. Along the lines you speak of. But you’ve reminded me of some other things too, so thank you.

      I’m sorry to hear of your example as it’s a painful one for everyone involved by the sounds of it. The appearance of things and the actual lived experience can, as you know, be quite different. I can’t really comment on your particular situation but yes genetics may play a partm who knows. People’s behaviours are the result of a complex of factors that I believe aren’t yet clearly defined. All we know is we can do our best as parents and it still might not be enough to keep anyone from a destructive path. Even the most stable, loving home life can be usurped by a school or social environment, and if you throw drugs and alcohol into the mix then it becomes an emotional lottery.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jim- says:

        We lived in a small community and everyone paid a lot of attentions her way growing up. She still craves the attention (Brittany Spears) and has gone deeper and deeper in her attempts to get it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Stephen says:

        Thanks Jim. I read and replied to your first comment too quick, so have edited my first reply.

        Narcissistic culture is a big factor in my view. We’re all exposed to it to the degree that it’s become normalised for many. But young people are especially vulnerable to its influence. I may have written a post on affirmation – what I call ‘existential affirmation’ – that addresses the root cause of this. For me the absence of existential affirmation is what fuels both narcissism and our celebrity culture. It’s the hollow at the centre of people’s pursuit of fame, fortune, the limelight. Young people in need of affirmation mimick this because it seems to promise fulfilment. But it’s why many, in my opinion, end up on self-destructive pathways, or even suicide. Because there is little to no affirmation in celebrity, if that’s what’s motivating some people to get it. The outward appearance of happiness, wealth and contentment obviously disguise terrible suffering in some of the many famous people who have ended their lives.

        In your example, there may be some significance in early addiction to heroin upon the developing foetus. No idea what that could mean for the developing child.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. jim- says:

        She is the pouting “selfie queen”. Every day all day on multiple accounts. Thanks buddy for letting me vent. We’re hopeful but really just done with it. I have 5 other girls that are really fine humans. Not sure how this happened but it’s been a long road. Lol

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Stephen says:

        My sympathies Jim. I have a strong sense of what you’re describing and it’s not easy to be around. But it’s become common for many young people to express themselves like this. Many people who behave in this way are, in fact, struggling with themselves; over-compensating for self-hatred and inner emptiness, or in response to perceived meaninglessness in society. Some create an inauthentic persona to court admiration in an attempt to find real affirmation, but this route tends to be a self-defeating one until we become aware of the distinction.

        On a lighter note, some people grow out of all this as part of growing up. Teenage years are particularly difficult for many people trying to find their identity, meaning and sense of value and belonging in a pretty screwed up world. It doesn’t always make sense to us from the outside or correlate neatly with what might seem like an ideal upbringing. I personally don’t take a very deterministic view of people as might a behaviourist, for example. Standardised ‘input’ doesn’t necessarily correlate with standardised output. We all make sense of and respond to life in very different ways under a complex of inner and outer influences.

        But I hope it all works out well for you and your kid in the end.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Stephen says:

    Just came across this article which may be of interest, but not necessarily an appropriate explanation in your example. It confirms that drug use during pregnancy can have effects on the development of the child. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4262892/

    Liked by 1 person

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