Find and feel the connections between negative experiences THENand problems NOW.
You've identified your problem and accepted the fact that its roots are in the past. You're also in the process of abandoning your shield strategies to make yourself emotionally available to buried feelings.
Step Four is about taking these feelings and putting them to work by connecting the dots: You're ready to make those crucial connections between what's troubling you in your life now, and what went on in the past.
If you were a building had foundation damage, Step Four is the part where the experts come in and assess what went wrong during construction. In this case, you are the expert, and your credentials are your unique access to memories about the past, the feelings that come up when you consider them, and your sense of what in your life today might be a result of these feelings remaining unexamined and unresolved.
Here it may be useful to go back to the statement you wrote in Step One. Read it to yourself. When you considered this problem before, you probably felt angry, or frustrated, or tried to think of a way to fix the problem as soon as possible. This time, try looking at the problem with curiosity. Ask yourself, why is it that I have this problem. What is it in my past - either an event, or a long-term interpersonal drama- that reminds me of how this problem looks or feels?
It might seem obvious to you: I was overweight when I was younger and teased about it, and I run from physical intimacy now.But if it is not obvious, remember our minds do not always work in linear fashion. We can imitate and repeat old behaviors, but we can also make our lives all about fleeing from them.
Take, for example, a woman who loses her older brother as a child. Later in life she finds that she will tolerate almost anything from her friends and lovers. She would rather be misunderstood or unhappy or even mistreated than risk losing people she loves. But an opposite overreaction is also possible: Another women who suffers a similar loss may have few friends and no real intimate relationship. She is so unwilling to face the risk of being abandoned that she opts to live in isolation.
Another example of running from the past might be this:Consider a man who grew up in a family in which his father lost all his money in a bad business deal. As an adult, this man clings to money. He cares only for wealth, believes financial security is the only security, and ignores any relationship that doesn't contribute to his bottom line.
Now, think about another man with very similar life story issues who believes himself incapable of financial responsibility and won't involve himself with money at all.
Whether you're running away from what you experienced early in life or whether you're running toward it, the fact that you're running means you're not in control. You can't live in the present moment powerfully or plan your most powerful future.
Step Four is about waking up to the connections between thenand now, in order to take ourselves off of autopilot.
As much as we can, we want to notice our feelings of sadness, anger or frustration (and of joy and freedom as well) and remember other times when we felt this way and why. We want to start putting details from the past-people places and things-together with these feelings so that we can start to tell a story-the story of how our past experiences continue to influence our choices and dreams.
What earlier trouble in your life are you replaying or running away from?Go to friends, family, or anyone you think might be helpful in your quest to learn the truth. People are natural storytellers, and if you let them know that you are searching for clues to what happened in your past and how it influences your present life, they may share valuable insights.
Once you open yourself up to the fact that the past influences the present, you will find clues almost everywhere you turn that will link the two in your own life.
Memories will surface. Welcome them.
Because your story, both now and then, matters.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at
Keith Ablow, MD is a psychiatrist, and was host of the nationally-syndicated "Dr. Keith Ablow Show." He is a former member of the Fox News Medical A Team.