How to Improve your Life in the Present by Talking about the Past

Many people say, “There is no use talking about the past, you can’t change it.” I think it is their idea of how they and other people recover from an event or events that were traumatic. Perhaps it is the only way they know how to deal with difficult painful events and circumstances.

It’s true. You cannot change events that happened in the past. But what you can change by talking about the past is how you think and feel in the present. When you think and feel differerently in the present then the future has new possibilities.

There are many ways that talking about the past helps change the present.

Get More Information About the Past

An example of this happens in the movie “The Mermaid Chair”. A woman who’s beloved father died when she was 9 goes back to care for her troubled mother. At the time of his death, she was told that her father had died when his boat exploded out at sea. She was not told that,in fact, her father had been terminally ill with a debilitating disease and that he killed himself. Her mother and several other people colluded with each other to assist in his suicide and make it look like an accident. The reason for their secrecy was that the father did not want to live and yet did not want his daughter to think that he abandoned her. (I’m not saying it’s a good movie but the plot makes for a good example). What the young girl had concluded was that she was to blame for his death because, against her mother’s wishes she had given her father a pipe. He would smoke his pipe when he went out on the boat with her. She created a fantasy about how the sparks from his pipe had caused the explosion. Over time, her fantasy became her truth. Because she had disobeyed her mother she never told anyone that she thought his death was her fault.

While she was helping her troubled mother she found the pipe in her mother’s belongings. With this new evidence she realized that she had not been responsible for his death. Her mother and the others told her the truth about his death. All those years she had carried the burden of his death on her shoulders unnecessarily. Finding out the real truth from the past changed how she felt about herself in the present and would influence how she lived in the future.

Thus getting new information by talking about the past can change the present. This can be healing.


Reframing is taking the same event (or circumstance) and giving it a new and different meaning. That is, looking at old stuff in a new way.

I worked with a man in his 30’s who had come for help with work issues. During the work it became clear that he did not feel good about himself. He recalled a vivid memory of an event that happened when he was 19. He was sitting in a diner with friends enjoying a hamburger and fries when his distressed father came into the restaurant and told him that one of his younger sisters had been hit by a bus and killed. He said he did not feel bad when he heard the news. All he thought about was how good the fries and ketchup tasted.

Soon after he felt very guilty about thinking about the taste of food when something so tragic had happened. He concluded that he must not care about his sister. He judged himself harshly – that he was a bad brother and a bad person. I told him that if that were true, he would not be bothered about his reaction to this event and probably would not even have remembered it. But this statement had no impact on him.

Then I reframed the situation and circumstances. I told him I saw it in a different way. How I saw it was that he was shocked by the terrible news and went numb. Then he focused on the taste of the fries because the moment before he heard the terrible news, life was very good. A part of him went into denial and just wanted life to be as it had been just moments before he heard the news. He focused on the taste because he did not want the news to be true.

The client resonated with my reframing of the circumstances. Immediately, he felt tremendous relief. The meaning I gave for his behavior matched his experience. (If it had not matched his experience he would not have had this response.)

He could now let go of the guilt he’d felt for years. His old conclusion dissolved because it was now obvious to him how deeply he cared about his sister. He came to a new conclusion that made him feel good about himself, increasing his self-esteem. The increase in his self-esteem translated into the work issues that he had originally come to counseling for.

Taking the same event from the past and looking at it with new eyes is another way to change the present.

Remembering the Past in More Detail

An example of over remembering the past in more detail comes from my own experience. In my thirties I did some major work on myself in therapy. One day, during a session, I recalled a memory from my early childhood. I don’t remember what we had been talking about at the time, I just remember my experience.

The Memory: I was three years old. I remember that because we still lived in the house on the farm. We moved from that house before I turned four. My mother, brother and I were standing in front of the wood stove popping popcorn. We were all crying.

That was all there was to the memory. It was not a new memory. Any time I had thought about it I was puzzled. I could not make sense out of it. Why were we crying? We were making popcorn. Popcorn was a special treat in those days. This was not like making popcorn today. Back then, my mother would scrape the small black kernels off the cob, put them into the frying pan and they would noisily POP into fluffy white yummy pieces of popcorn. It was magical, especially to a three year old. So why were we all crying?

By the end of this session nothing more had come from my recalling this memory. I left the therapist’s office and went about my day. But I could not stop thinking about it. I knew – I just knew – that there was something very important in this memory. For the rest of the day I was in my own little bubble.

That evening I made dinner as usual, put the kids to bed as usual and then went to bed at 8:00 pm, earlier than usual. I just wanted to be by myself so I could continue to think about this memory. I lay there in the dark, visualizing the scene over and over. Later my husband came to bed and I pretended to be asleep. I just did not want to be interrupted. I continued to lie there for hours thinking. Finally! At 4:00 am I got the answer.

I had always thought that we were all crying about the same thing. But as the memory became clearer I realized that my brother and I were crying because our mother had just strapped us. I don’t remember what for. (This was the late 40s and spankings were considered part of good parenting. People often quoted the Bible: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”) My mother was crying because she felt badly about what she had done to us. She was making the popcorn to make up to us for what she’d done.

Then the memory all made sense to me. I always thought when my mother strapped us kids that she wanted to do it. What I got from the memory was that she had ‘lost it’ and she could not help herself. I may have been only three but I was there.

I felt a flood of forgiveness for her. I felt relief. I felt a release. I fell into a sound peaceful sleep.

This changed my relationship with my mother in a positive way. I was different with her and she responded to my change with change of her own.

The change in the present did not stop there. Before I had this revelation I was the type of person who was warm and affectionate with family and friends but not with acquaintances or strangers. I did not like people I did not know well to touch me and I did not touch them. In the next days after I experienced this huge shift I found myself spontaneously reaching out and touching others. Also, I found myself liking it when people were physically warm with me. I didn’t think about it; it just happened. I’m not sure why this change occurred, but I liked it. The change has lasted to this day.

It is not always possible to remember more about a past event but it can sometimes happen when people reminisce about the past. In therapy people often do remember more about a past event, especially if they deliberately focus on the past. It also happens that new memories of other events come to mind that shed more light on the original memory.

When someone in your family tells you a memory, pay close attention. They are sharing their modus operandi for life with you. If there are unhealed traumas from the past, talking about painful memories can help your family member heal.

Memories are blue prints for how to do life.

Children have millions of experiences by the time they are around five to six years old but they only remember a few of them. Why do they remember only a few and why those particular ones? When children are born into this world they quickly have to figure out how to survive, emotionally and physically. It is the emotion surrounding an event that determines meaning. With their limited knowledge and experience of life they come to conclusions about self, others and life. Then they live their life according to the conclusions they’ve come to, whether those conclusions are conscious or unconscious. Memories after the age of 6 are important as well; they tend to confirm or disconfirm previous conclusions.

How to talk about memories.

1.       Listen to the memories without interrupting. Your parent, spouse, child, sibling, cousin or other relative is telling you something important about themselves. Paying attention to them shows them you are interested in them and care about them.

2.       Memories can be happy, neutral or unhappy/painful. Enjoy the happy ones, be curious about the neutral ones and be empathetic with the painful ones. Often, healing can occur through the expression of feelings alone. It is possible for a child and an adult to heal emotionally from talking to a caring person about an experience they had as a child or young adult.

3.       Validate their experiences and the meaning they make of them. Do not argue about whether the events happened or not.  Just because you don’t remember an event does not mean it did not happen.  Or, if you remember the same event differently, it means you made different meaning out of it. Do not be concerned about the truth or facts of the memory. It may or may not be accurate. It is not about the facts; it is about the meaning the person made of their experience and the facts.

4.       Do not assume you know what their memory means. Ask “What do you make of that?” Say, “Tell me more about that.” Invite your family member to say more by being curious about it.

5.       Validate the feelings generated in the memory, positive and/or negative.

6.       If you want to share memories of your own, wait until they are finished.

Note:  Memories are not static.  As a person ages and their circumstances change, their memories may change, or even be forgotten completely.

Reminiscing is healthy if family members are open to listening to each other.

The above holds true of people who are non-family members as well.

With care and concern,

Dr. Bea

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