Someone once wrote me that she was sorry I shared her “sorted history” of dieting and body image issues. It reminded me of someone saying ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ at a funeral. But this got me thinking, am I sorry for my past? Was my past a loss? How much of my past still haunts me?
I used to regret my past because I thought I was broken in some way. My past was proof I was a bad person or that I ended up where I am because of my failures or the failures of others. But I don’t think that way anymore.
Growing up, I had a sense that something was not right, like I didn’t fit in. I was adopted at 10 days old, and raised as an only child. My adoptive parents were both alcoholics, with my dad being in and out of rehab most of my early childhood and my mom drinking to cope. My dad was happy-go-lucky and let my verbally abusive mom dominate. We were in a low to middle socioeconomic class and my parents were old enough to be my grandparents. They sent me to a Catholic grade school where the nuns were cold and unforgiving.
I had this litany of complaints about my childhood, regretting everything that happened to me and mulling it over and over and asking God, “Why me?” I felt victimized by my parents, the nuns, and my birth mother. I had the story down pat and would tell anyone who would listen how I wished things could have been different, if only I wasn’t adopted, if only my mom treated me better, if only…..
One day I was talking to my parish priest at a social gathering, and I began to tell him (not for the first time) how I wished my life as a child had been different. Right in the middle of my speech he excused himself and walked away. I was stunned. But it occurred to me that talking about what I wish the past would have been didn’t make any sense, and no one really wanted to hear it. The past was part of who I was, but it didn’t have anything to do with what was happening at this point in my life. I was the one keeping it alive.
I now see my past as being necessary to get me to where I am today. After all, if things had been different in any way, would I have the children I have now? Would I have met my husband? Would I be any happier? Would my life be any better? There is no way to know.
When we regret the past, we automatically think that if it had been different then, things would be better now. This gives us an excuse to not make things better now. The truth is, even if we had an idyllic past, there is no way of knowing that any aspect of our lives would be better than it is now. This is an assumption we make; a guess. But there is no proof. And if there is no proof that anything would be better, it’s not logical to waste time lamenting the past. This just keeps us stalled in an unhappy ‘now.’
How did I come to terms with my past?
I began with changing my perspective. I took myself out of the equation and observed it as an outsider. I pretended that my past had a physical dimension, like a kitchen table. I had only been looking at it from one angle. I felt like a plate sitting on the top of the table. I could only see what was happening around me. And back then, I did what plates do; I took everything that was laid on me and didn’t ask any questions.
I realized that if I was looking into the past, I didn’t have to be the plate any more. I could just be me, as I am now, and look at everything. I crawled up under the table and looked at the underside. I inspected the legs that held it up and examined the entire structure. I made new conclusions about its existence. I no longer felt like the plate or the victim or at fault.
After that, I began to remember things a little better. It’s not that my memories were faulty, it’s that they were not complete. I remember all the bad things because it’s easy to do that. It’s a survival mechanism. We easily recall the bad stuff so we can stay away from it in the future. The problem is, when we do this, we forget the okay stuff, and even the good stuff. But, if we think hard enough, we can find those good times that were overlooked.
So, here’s the new version of my past. It’s the same as before, only from a new perspective.
My biological mom was only 18 years old, with no education or money, when she got pregnant with me. No surprise that I was put up for adoption. My adoptive parents were madly in love with each other and tried many years, but could not conceive a child of their own. I was the answer to their prayers. My dad drank a lot, but he worked hard to put a roof over our head. I was a typical ‘daddy’s little girl’ and loved him lots. My mom and I weren’t as close, but she was a great cook and housekeeper. She worked part time cleaning other people’s houses to give me piano lessons and send me to a private Catholic school. A few nuns were mean to me, but most of them and the other teachers were supportive and taught me well. When I was little, my mom and dad took me camping and fishing at the shore most weekends. My adoptive parents tried hard to make a good life for me.
This change in thinking about my past did not come about in a day, a month, or even a year. I have spent my life trying to reconcile it. But I now realize that by just trying to accept my past, I limited myself. I must embrace my past to be happy about who I am now. I must be content that things happened just the way they did, or I will always harbor a shadow of regret.
I have no regrets now.
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“My past has no hold over me unless I let it.”