Do Your Stories Still Define You?

Do you ever feel powerless? Do you ever feel like a little kid again? Hurt and alone? Do you feel like the world is just too much to handle?

Someone says something and it triggers a memory. A memory of a feeling. It triggers the feeling itself. When your dad screamed at you. When your teacher told you that you’d never amount to anything. When you choked up in speech class and everyone teased you about it. When you learned your best friend had betrayed you. When you lost a family member?

You re-experience the trauma. And it affects you again. And again. And again. You’re damaged.

There’s a reason every therapist asks you what happened in your childhood. Adults have big feelings, too, and they’re usually feelings we developed when we were younger, and things happened to us. We almost never experience a feeling for the first time. We hear something said, or see something happen, that tears open old scars.

And usually it breaks us down again. As an experienced, mature adult you suddenly feel again like a powerless child. Because your past hurts have come alive again.

The more we dwell on our past hurts, the more they keep hurting. Past experiences can hit you in the gut every single day for your entire life. And the more you take those punches, the weaker and more vulnerable you become.

So we see our therapists. They ask us what happened. And we find that when we share our old secrets of trauma and sadness, we feel a sweet release.

The other day something occurred to me, and I thought I should share it–might help somebody reading this…

Each of us has a life story. And most of our stories are, in some big ways, painful and sad.

I think I had a lot to overcome. Some unfortunate circumstances left me feeling very alone and crushed as I transitioned into adulthood. I had an extremely tough time trusting anybody to mean well or show love unconditionally. I had the distinct impression that I was pretty much a loser. I’d never get anything right, never be great at stuff, always be awkward.

I was just not good enough.

I struggled a lot with this. A lot. I still do sometimes.

Just like you. Right? Doesn’t it resonate? Everyone seems to go through the same ordeal. Different characters, different plot, but the exact same hurt.

Now here’s where it starts getting complicated. I developed a habit for self-preservation–a defense mechanism–and I didn’t realize the effect it was having:

As I grew up and started becoming an independent person, I told everyone, very often, all about how hurt I had been. And of course I did a lot of blaming my hurtful stories on others. Why was I so socially awkward (I thought)? Here’s why. It’s their fault! Why was I so sensitive (I kept reminding myself)? This is why. They hurt me!

And my new friends and acquaintances would feel for me. They’d be very sympathetic. They’d be extremely proud of me for being so strong. They were all very impressed.

And it helped me. It was a great band-aid, and maybe one I really needed. It turned wounds into scars. But guess what else it did: It kept me focused on those scars.

Whenever I told people how hard I had to work on this and that, what I had to go through, to get where I wanted to go–they were all impressed. But every time I re-lived things, I felt like the hurt version of me. The damaged me.

In others’ eyes, I was becoming this strong, independent, awesome person!

In my own heart, I was stuck as a kid who had a lot of crap thrown at him.

My past hurts defined me. My stories defined me. My scars defined me.

I didn’t even stop telling my stories all the time because I realized what it was doing to me. At the time, I didn’t. It just made me feel better, and it impressed people.

I stopped telling my stories simply because I was embarrassed. The more often I heard myself looking for a pat on the back, sharing a sob story, the more I thought, “You talk about yourself a lot!” So I just got embarrassed and started keeping it to myself more often.

Something strange started to happen the less I talked about and focused on my past: I grew stronger. I felt free. Life got better. I became happier.

I don’t think I realized the effect my story-telling had until later. In fact, it’s what occurred to me so clearly the other day–it’s been years, and I haven’t seen the pattern so clearly until now.

So take some encouragement from me if you can today:

Your hurt is real. Your scars are real. And you can’t carry the memories on your own.

BUT: You are not your past. You are who you decide to be today. Don’t let your past hurt keep you hurt. Don’t let your stories define you. Embrace your stories for what they’ve given you. Be humble to see that everyone has lived their own story, too. Sympathize and accept support.

But NOW–go define yourself. Be who you want to be, not what people have done to you. Be awesome.

When do you most often find yourself getting stuck on past hurts? What helps you get past them? I’d really like to hear from you.

lesson 2 - o'neil

Author: Peter Elbridge

I am a lifelong learner and avid reader, which translates into doing smart work for myself, my team, and my clients. I have a passion for effective leadership and an even bigger passion for helping others do and feel better. I have a lot of experience in communication, public speaking, and writing. Above all, I have a deep and genuine care for every life I touch. That's why I write. (My opinions and endorsements are my own and do not represent my employer.)

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