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We must remember before we can move on

We must remember before we can move on. What is not remembered is doomed to be repeated.

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This is true for history, for politics, and for families. One of my former professors in Family and Marriage Therapy had once asked us what we will do if we were dating a partner who seemed ideal but who was raised in a family with values that strongly go against our own principles. Being in my 20s at the time, I fervently fought for the idea that a person can develop values separate from their family and as such, the family’s values shouldn’t matter. My teacher leaned in and whispered, “No, you run away. You run away as fast as you can.”

I am definitely not encouraging people to make relationship decisions based on this factor alone, but don’t be too naïve to think that one’s family doesn’t matter. One of the most bittersweet things I’ve learned while training in family therapy is that we can’t really avoid becoming our parents. In times of overwhelming stress, we revert to the coping that our parents used when we were young. We may end up raising our voices despite our better judgment because we grew up in an environment where anger is expressed through shouting. Worse, when parents abuse us, we may end up abusing our own children if we are not mindful of the cycle of abuse.

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In psychotherapy, we differentiate between reacting and responding. A reaction is a quick impulsive behavior toward an event or a situation. Because it has to be done quickly, almost without thinking, it is much informed by our past experience and coping. Thus we don’t really react to something that’s in front of us, but instead we react to the activation of our past. As a therapist, I observe people’s automatic coping. Do they get defensive at every little thing? Do they tend to blame themselves for things outside of their control? Or do they blame others when problems arise? These automatic reactions reveal a glimpse of their past: their upbringing, the values they were raised in, and even trauma. Using child psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg’s language, every time we react, the “ghosts” of our past come out.

In contrast, responding is mindful and deliberate. Responding requires nonjudgmental observation of the present moment and thinking of the wisest behavior to use in the situation. Because it requires a lot of thought, it is much slower than a reaction. (They also tend to be less witty and less likely to go viral on Twitter or TikTok.) Usually, a good response does not use absolutes: it does not use “always” or “never.” A good response is considerate of each party’s views and needs. Mindful responding is the best way to break any family cycle of coping. You don’t want to be like your parents? Then be mindful of what your parents taught you, see the limitations in their style of coping, and respond differently.

For those who don’t want to be doomed into repeating history, these are the steps you should take:

Remember. Do not forget the past but do not fear it either. The past can only hurt you if you bring it back to the present. You must remember if you want to keep it in the past.

Learn. When you remember, remember everything. Do not leave anything out. This is the only way to fully learn from our past — remembering the good and the bad. Remember your parents’ teachings and behaviors and remember their consequences. Perhaps the values that they taught limited the way your family can express affection for each other. Or the values they uphold have protected your family but have hurt others. Integrate what you know now versus what you knew then. See your parents as human—both capable and limited. Reflect on what values you’d want to keep and which values are best left to the previous generation.

Commit to your values. Don’t believe in things just because your parents did. Develop your own values. Envision what you want for yourself, for your own family, and for the community. More than wanting things to go back to the way they were or running away from a feared future, dream of the future you actually want. How do you want people to relate to each other? What do you want your children to feel and think about you? On a bigger scale, what country or world do you want you and your children to live in?

Don’t react, respond. Be mindful of your impulse, because that is the ghost of the past trying to repeat itself. Use the past to gain insight and respond wisely to the present so you can have full freedom to determine your future.

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TAGS: Anna Cristina Tuazon, learning from the past, Moving On, Safe Space
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