There are many temptations to organize our life around the experience of earlier trauma. But that may shortchange the future—which starts by our envisioning something better.

It’s not past experience that keeps people stuck but the habits
developed to cope with it.
 By Noam Shpancer, Ph.D.

“The past is never gone. It is not even past” wrote William Faulkner. The statement may be truest with regard to past adversity. Negative events echo loudly inside our psychic architecture.

The reason is evolutionary. If a tiger attacked you in the forest, you’d do better, survival-wise, not to forget about it, lest you venture again into the forest unprepared. In addition, our brain has evolved to seek order in the environment—to make sense of things—because we’re less vulnerable if we understand what’s going on. Adverse events disrupt the existing order, introducing an element of chaos and senselessness. Our brain is compelled to return to the site of the trauma to try to “solve the case,” piece together the narrative, and restore order to the world.

Little wonder, then, that people find moving on from past adversity difficult. Or that therapists often seek to help clients deal with current troubles by relating them back to early distress. Attributing current difficulties to past trauma restores order to the narrative, providing a reassuring clarity.

Yet organizing a self-story around past trauma carries risks. For one, such a story may be factually inaccurate. The path from early experience to adult outcome is neither direct nor clear. (If early adversity led you to a habit of drinking, are your current problems caused by early adversity or by drinking?) Specific early experiences cannot readily explain specific current behaviors, and those who experience similar early circumstances are unlikely to share similar symptom profiles in adulthood. Additionally, traumatic experiences happen in context, and the contexts in which they occur are bound to include other risk factors, making it difficult to ascertain the traumatic event’s unique contribution to later outcome.

Moreover, the notion that current troubles are caused by past trauma creates a market for finding trauma in one’s past. We thus risk assigning the trauma label to any upsetting, angering, challenging, or disappointing experience. Stretching the trauma label to cover generic life challenges or trivial negative events amounts to a form of emotional grade inflation, diluting the meaning of the term. If everyone has been traumatized, then the construct of trauma loses its utility in describing meaningful variations in lived experience.

In addition, focusing on trauma in appraising our (or others’) life amounts to framing existence in terms of its brokenness. There’s brokenness to every life. Yet making trauma someone’s defining feature reduces them to their injury. That’s spiritually deflating, psychologically unhelpful, and factually inaccurate. Human beings are more than the sum of their hurts.

Ironically, a trauma-centered narrative itself may make moving on from trauma difficult. Attaching one’s identity to past trauma provides relief by anchoring our sense of self in a coherent narrative amidst the storm of existence. Yet, once the story of “my trauma” becomes the story of “me,” moving on from it may feel like self-negation.

Therefore, moving on from past adversity often requires a shift in how we perceive ourselves. Specifically, we may benefit from shifting our self-focus to our strengths and assets. This is not an act of denial or an excursion into “positive thinking” but a useful and fair correction.

First, the default position for human beings is resilience, not fragility. Our odds of overcoming adversity are generally greater than our odds of succumbing. Second, framing identity in terms of our strengths is psychologically empowering. At the job interview, you talk about your strengths first because anchoring your narrative in your strengths improves the odds that you will be perceived, and
treated, as strong by others. The same is true for self-perception. Finally, as research has demonstrated, acknowledging and building our strengths improves our ability to deal with our areas of weakness; focusing on mental health assets tends to improve mental health outcomes.

In addition, moving on from past adversity often requires us to change how we perceive the adversity itself. The experience of trauma is subjective. What overwhelms one person may not bother another, and what society may commonly construe as an adverse event may not be inherently or uniformly so.

Research shows that our subjective perceptions of events, rather than the events themselves, tend to account for the experience of trauma. As Seth Pollak and Karen Smith note in Perspectives on Psychological Science: “Variability in individuals’ perceptions of events is most likely to account for how adversity ‘gets under the skin,’ affecting long-term neural and behavioral outcomes.”

How you perceive what happened influences how what happened affects you. This is good news because while you can’t change what happened, you can change how you perceive it.

A useful first move is to let go of the misperception—a common feature of trauma-centered narratives—that what caused a problem to emerge in the past is what keeps it going in the present. You may have learned to distrust people because of your troubled childhood
relationship with your unstable parents. Yet your mistrust of people in the present is not maintained by your relationship with your parents.

In general, current difficulties that may have had their origin in past adversity are most commonly maintained in the present by the habit of avoidance, research finds. What’s holding you back now is not your past adversity but the avoidance habits enacted to cope with its aftermath. Such habits, unlike the past experience itself, can be changed. The way forward from trauma is by confronting in the present what your past had taught you to avoid.

Finally, dealing with traumatic memories often means tangling with negative emotions. The blizzard of negative emotions, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, can overwhelm the order of the soul. Managing emotions, however, is a skill that can be mastered. Generally, it involves a three-step process.

First, we must recognize that emotions are always part of our experience, never the whole of it. Your emotions are yours, but they are not you, in the same way that waves are not the ocean.

Second, we need to learn to accept our emotions. Acceptance does not denote agreement or liking. Rather, it is a stance of attentive curiosity. To wit: Listening attentively to someone does not require us to judge them or agree with what they’re saying. Emotional acceptance is listening attentively to oneself.

Third, we need to realize that the information conveyed by our emotions is often distorted or incomplete. The fact that you feel bad does not mean that you are bad or that your situation is bad. Thus, we should not blindly obey our emotions. Rather, we may learn to consult other available sources of data—our capacity for reason, worldly experience, meaningful goals, personal values—and arrive at a considered decision, rather than an emotionally driven one, about the course of action to take.

Moving forward from past adversity does not happen on its own. It requires intentional and persistent effort. It takes a balanced approach that acknowledges difficult past events and circumstances without sanctifying them as the pillars of identity and directs us to acquire the mental health skills needed to appraise accurately, deal successfully with—and ultimately transcend—the legacy of a troubled past.