Your Past Is a Story You Get to Rewrite
What's holding you back can be the very thing that sets you free.
I scan the bookshelf which stands dusty and cluttered in the corner of my writing room, and select a random old journal from among about thirty of them, all various sizes, colors, and patterns. I’ve been journaling daily for almost my entire life so there’s a lot more of my discarded journals out there in trash heaps and landfills than I care to think about. But for some reason on that particularly contemplative day a few weeks ago, I thought to read through one of my journals which would have been from, I don’t know, three or four years prior. Around the time I would have turned forty or so. Something far enough back that I would have been, perhaps, surprised to read about where I was at that time, but it would also be rather familiar.
I am not sure what prompted this desire to read my past as it was written in an old notebook. I very rarely re-read anything and when I journal I have absolutely no intention of ever going back to read it again. It’s too cringy, too embarrassing, too gross. Not because I don’t have a healthy amount of compassion for myself - I do - but because when you journal you really need to be writing the cringy shit, the trash you aren’t allowed to ever speak to anyone else for fear of judgement or the onset of a palpable vulnerability hangover.
I swear by my morning journaling practice. I always have. I have always needed to write my thoughts down in order to make sense of them. To feel like I completed their download into my operating system. It is as though I have to pull the thoughts down from my head through my hands and ground them onto the page so that they will become a real part of me. Otherwise, my feelings, insights, ideas, dreams, desires, debacles, struggles, and epiphanies will just go on floating around in the cosmos, with me wandering helplessly beneath them, knowing they are hovering but never being able to truly call them my own.
Perhaps ‘epiphanies’ sounds dramatic to you? I can assure you it is not a dramatization, as evidenced by the mortifying amount of exclamation points, hearts, arrows and capitalized block letters I have used in former journals to really drive home the point I am trying to make to myself all alone in my private bedroom sanctuary, scribbling away as though my life depended on it.
One thing made me pause, though, and not open the journal I selected off the shelf. As I sipped my coffee and nestled into my writing space, I became worried about what I would read from my past. What if I had been wrangling with something back then that I am still struggling with now? What if I hadn’t evolved sufficiently in my own estimation and then felt really terrible about that? What if I had had one of those dramatic epiphanies years ago and then just forgot about it and moved on with my life just as blind and ignorant as ever?
I knew there would be pages in there that spoke about drinking. About hangovers and headaches and nausea and hating myself for hurting myself over and over again and why, why, why can’t I stop. And the more I thought about opening that damn journal, the tan one with the fluorescent stripes running horizontally across the front, the sicker I started to feel about reading it or any other journal from my past. Ever.
They say you don’t actually process your life linearly in your mind the way you think you do. You don’t actually process living your life as: “The past happened to me, now I am living a better way in the present, making new plans for my yet-unwritten-future.”
What actually happens subconsciously is that it’s more like: “The past happened to me, therefore, it will happen again to me in the future, so I better live in the present as a reaction to that future that has already been decided by my past.” You don’t realize this is what is happening in your brain, of course, but it makes sense. It explains why we continue to carry around our old wounds. We are afraid to let them go because we believe they are the same wounds our future is just waiting to inflict upon us again. If we keep them, we can’t get hurt again. Keeping the old wounds, hanging on to old pain, feels like self-protection.
What is suggested, though, in becoming aware of how the mind is playing this past/future/present trick on us, is a chance at freeing ourselves from the past/future we think we are trapped into both repeating and projecting. Because even the stories we have told ourselves about our past are not set in stone. Events happened to us, but the pain we associate with those things comes from the stories we have told ourselves about who we were as we navigated all that stuff. The stuff that was more than we knew how to handle at the time so we did what we could with what we believed we were capable of doing, learning, trying, and achieving.
And if the past is a story, it can be re-written. What we lived through then from a mindset of scarcity and self-hatred, self-judgment, despair, heartache, confusion and sickness, can be reframed and retold from a new mindset of health, wellness, self-compassion, and higher, clearer, more integrated thinking. And when you can begin to reimagine your past, you give yourself permission to believe in a future free of the wounds you thought were doomed to be repeated. Free of the fears you thought you were sentenced by some cruel supernatural being to lug around like a punishment for the rest of your sorry, troubled days (okay, drama).
As I was reflecting on this new idea, that the past is just another story waiting to be written by me in the present, I finally worked up the nerve to crack open that old journal. Whatever mayhem it contained was just a story I had told myself at the time. Whatever self-cruelty was contained in those pages could be held in a new light as I now see it today, and re-written as I now see fit.
So. I held my breath tight, and then let it out slowly, mindfully, courageously, to face whatever my past was that was so awfully hard to revisit. And I turned to a page about halfway through the old notebook, feeling quite proud of my brave self indeed, only to discover that the random journal I had selected from the shelf was completely empty.
Every single page was gleaming white and entirely blank.
No drama. No terror. No regret. No pre-written story.
The past I feared revisiting wasn’t there the way I remembered it. It hadn’t even been written yet. So I picked up my pen, in the morning light of a brand new day, and began to write.