Mind and Body

Dr. Keith: Living the Truth - Step Five

Think about the past in order to put it behind you.

We are told not to dwell on the past. Looking back is seen as a sign of weakness, while forging ahead is seen as a sign of strength.

We at Living the Truth disagree. We see tremendous value in examining what we have lived through-the roots of the emotional and behavioral patterns that have set the stage for our successes or failures. We know we must understand the events and relationships that make up our life histories or we will either repeat painful dynamics from the past or needlessly waste energy as we blindly flee from them.

In Step Four we applied ourselves to connecting the dots between the past and present. In Step Five, we made a pledge to allow ourselves to feel the emotions associated with our past life experiences-especially the difficult, complicated, painful ones. We do so knowing that we have a responsibility to choose insight and authenticity over a life of denial. We can live unconsciously and let tired, recycled patterns keep us in orbits defined by fear. Or, we can live consciously, and accept these feelings as clues to who we are and what we can be.

Let's say that when you began this work, you knew that you were unfulfilled in your job. You might have written the statement: Instead of blindly climbing the corporate ladder, I am going to examine why I don't believe I deserve to pursue my dreams. You resisted having the couple of after-work cocktails that used to transform memories of another disappointing day into a vaguely pleasant haze. By spending sober time alone with your thoughts, you discovered you were deeply affected by your parents' divorce, and ultimately uncovered your mother gave up going to law school to become a secretary so she could support you. Further exploration yielded up more truth: Your mother was angry about this and tried to hide it from you, but it came through in her temper, especially when you failed at anything, or suggested you'd lost interest in something. The essential message you received growing up - one that still reverberates through your life - was this: Keep achieving, don't get distracted, or you will not get love.

This insight is real buried treasure. You've unearthed it. Now it is time to unlock it. In order to keep the past from running your present life you have to go back and let yourself feel what it felt like to be the kid living through this dynamic. Remember what it was like when you were 11, and your mother lost her temper about your average grades in math, and placed the blame on you for wasting time playing guitar or acting in school plays? If you felt scared, remember the fear; if you felt lazy, remember how shameful that felt; and if your mother's anger made you angry, feel that as well. Let yourself be sad and mad that your childhood didn't give you what you needed.

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging loss, or accepting that someone you loved disappointed you. These actions won't make you get lost in the past. They are a way of putting these feelings where they belong-back in the part of your life story in which they unfolded, not free to contaminate your present reality or limit your horizons. When you remember and feel what it was like to be four years old, or 10 years old, you're freeing yourself to move beyond those memories and feelings. You are making a conscious decision to place the drama of this dynamic behind you.

Patterns from our past hold us in very powerful orbits, and these orbits can only be disrupted by our will to open our minds and our hearts to what we have lived through. This determination to stop living defensively, avoiding our life histories, allows us to exit the dramas of our past, and make healthy decisions that give us back our free will and ability to choose the path that will make us most authentic and powerful.

Before Living the Truth, your past was like loose paperwork you couldn't seem to complete or find the right place for. When it got in your way, you just stuffed it into a different drawer. In Step Four, we started to take those pages out and look at them. Step Five is about taking these pages and reading them carefully so you can put them in order, and bind them into their proper place in your life story. And by binding these pages, we accept they are completed - and we can't change them. We can learn from them and write new chapters, true to ourselves.

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 livingthetruth.com.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team.