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The Past: A Reason Not an Excuse

I was going to lose my girlfriend. We had been dating for a couple months and were having a deep conversation. The subject: religion. Uh oh. I was in a cold sweat. For the past few years I had been really struggling with my beliefs. I was on the verge of admitting I was an atheist, but my girlfriend was a lifelong believer. I felt like maybe there was a god and maybe he cared about what we did on earth, but I didn’t think it was likely. We were in her room having a deep discussion about the future and what we thought we wanted in a partner. She said in no uncertain terms that she wanted to be with a man who would give her a traditional marriage for her religion. I couldn’t commit to that. I got up to leave. She asked me to stay and talk. I wasn’t sure if I could commit to a relationship where I knew I couldn’t offer her the thing she said she wanted. So I did what any manipulative person does when they’re confronted with an uncomfortable situation, I lied. I downplayed how I was currently feeling about god, “I think maybe there’s a higher power, I just don’t know if it’s the Christian one.” I inflated how I felt about organized religion, “I think there’s a lot of good things that come from organized religion.” And we left the subject at that…for a while.

Over the past couple years I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what makes me tick. I took a deep dive into my personal beliefs, relationships, career goals, everything. It led to a lot of changes in my everyday life, and it also took me into my past. While I was digging into all of these things I had a realization. It’s extremely easy to use the past as an excuse for current behavior. While it’s important to understand how the past can directly affect the way you think today, it’s equally important to know that it’s no excuse to continue the behavior. It can be really hard to keep the two separate. One of my biggest weaknesses has been using the past as an excuse for every negative behavior I do. This article is an attempt to take you on my journey of responsibility and understanding that while the past may be the reason for a behavior, it isn’t an excuse to continue that behavior.

First, some quick facts:

The key cause of anxiety in most people is apprehensive behavior. Anxiety becomes a disorder when the apprehensive behavior affects your daily life. Most people are confronted with a problem and they make a decision. Even if they aren’t 100% confident in their decision they live with it and move on. A person suffering from anxiety laments every decision.

When I have to make a decision about anything, especially if it has long-term repercussions, I get this cold feeling in my gut. My heart races and I feel like I’m going to throw up. Chills run down my spine and my limbs start to tremble. For example: There was a time that I had the flu and I hadn’t eaten in at least a day. I had a fever and my wife was trying to get me to take nyquil and go to sleep. All I could think was:

  • It says not to take on an empty stomach. What if the nyquil makes me too tired and I throw up in my sleep and choke on it?
  • What if it really hurts my stomach, liver, kidneys, etc because I haven’t eaten?
  • What if it has a bad interaction with the vitamins I took earlier?
  • I have ulcers, what if this makes them worse and I have to go to the hospital?

So I took the Nyquil. As soon as I swallow the pill I panic, my mind races trying to come up with every way to get out of it. Until my body has filtered it completely out of my bloodstream I’m stuck with this decision. Maybe I can make myself throw up before it affects me. Maybe I can go to the hospital and get my stomach pumped. Maybe they’ll sedate me until it’s over. Is my heart racing because I’m having a bad reaction? Is this a heart attack?

It doesn’t really matter what the decision is. Anything that forces me down one path with no easy way out is a huge trigger. Here’s a (totally incomplete) list of decisions that I’ve had significant anxiety over:

  • Whether or not to play hockey (happens every week).
  • Whether to take prescribed medication.
  • Whether to publish these articles.
  • Answering the phone.
  • Applying for a job.
  • Sending an email.
  • What to wear.
  • Getting a haircut.
  • Getting in a car I’m not driving.

What does this have to do with the past though?

Story Time:

When I was a young kid my parents got divorced. I was the only child at the time. For the first few years I’d see my dad alternating weekends but lived with my mom full time. When I got a little older, my parents both got remarried.  They eventually came up with a deal where I split the time evenly between households. One month at my mom’s and one month at my dad’s. On the surface it’s an equitable situation. I got even time spent between my two families. I had two of everything, two homes, two bedrooms, two dogs, two sets of loving parents, two sets of sisters. It sounds pretty great and lots of parts were. However, it is also created an environment ripe for indecisive behavior. On top of the things listed above I also ended up with two sets of friends, four different parenting styles, two different religious upbringings (one religious, one not), two different set of rules, two sets of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents. Hundreds of questions: “Who do you want to spend Thanksgiving with?” “Who do you want to spend Christmas with?” “Who do you want to go trick-or-treating with?” “Your mom put you on meds for depression? You aren’t depressed. Spit them out when she’s not looking.” “Your dad took you target shooting? You’re too young for that. You could get hurt” “Did you know when you’re 12 you can tell a judge you want to live with me full time?”

Wow, talk about some heavy questions for a little kid. The result for me was I learned to become a chameleon. Every new situation I’d sit back and assess what the rules of the game were. Hiding in the background for as long as possible. I always tried not to ruffle feathers. Answering “maybe” whenever I could instead of “yes” or “no.” Any situation I could, I’d try to half-ass both options instead of fully committing to one. If I couldn’t choose an option that made everyone happy, I’d do something completely the opposite and hurt everyone equally. I always figured that if both people got mad at me, at least they’d be equally mad. If it meant that I could get out of being responsible for something I’d delay it as long as possible.

In the past I would have looked at this behavior and my own history and used it as an excuse to continue to be wishy washy. “Well I was just raised to be this way, sorry.” Or “I’m just easygoing, I don’t mind” The problem was that while I may have been right about the reasons I was inclined to act the way I did, they weren’t  a way out of responsibility for my actions.

I could (and did) take the facts of my childhood and use them as an excuse for my indecisiveness, laziness, and just plain dickish actions. My attitude was always, “the world made me this way and there’s nothing I can do about it.” As long as I could point to these painful events in my past I felt like I had a valid excuse for acting the way I was. In some cases it had the added benefit of making people feel bad for me. For a long time it felt good to know that if someone caught me acting shitty I could just point to my past and get out of trouble. But what I thought was my ace in the hole was stunting my growth. The fact of the matter is EVERYTHING I do is my choice. There is no excuse for acting like a jerk.

Fault vs Responsibility

My mom did a lot to try to mitigate the damage from the divorce. She took me to therapists, doctors, specialists, everything to try to figure out my anxiety. As a teenager I landed myself in a juvenile treatment program for troubled kids. While I was there I saw a doctor who I tried to use the past as an excuse with. He told me that every action I take is my fault. I tried to argue that my parents made me do this and I was forced to act the way I was acting. He told me that no one could make me do anything. I was the one making the decision. “You always have a choice, even if someone puts a gun to your head the choice is still yours.” Yes, you don’t have quite so many options, but the choice is still yours. Putting the blame on someone else is never going to help you grow. You may see some short term benefit by playing the victim and blaming the world for your problems, but long-term it’s always going to hurt you.

Sometimes things are not your fault. But once it comes into your world it becomes your responsibility to deal with. Whatever abuses you’ve suffered from your family, friends, strangers, bosses, anyone. They are your responsibility to fix, integrate, accept, whatever it takes to move on. It is not on anyone else and no one else even has the ability to do it for you. The only thing you can control are your responses to any given situation. Will Smith had a really good video on about this subject.

I had to make the decision to change. It was painful at first because all of a sudden I no longer had anyone to blame for where I was in life. It wasn’t my parent’s responsibility that them getting divorced made me feel terrified of commitment. It was my responsibility to learn from that experience, figure out how to move on, and have good relationships. If I used that experience as an excuse to act like a victim, it wasn’t on them, it was on me.  Again, it’s not my fault that children of divorce who marry other children of divorce are 200% more likely to end up divorced (my wife’s parents got divorced too). But it is absolutely my responsibility to know that the deck is stacked against our marriage and do what it takes to keep it strong.

You can take responsibility for things that are out of your control. My step-parents inherited a tough situation. They fell in love with a someone who already had a kid. I pushed them away because they weren’t my parents and I felt like they were trying to replace them. Both of them could easily have focused on their own kids and pushed me away. When I was about 12, my dad moved away to California. I got to see him about once a month or less. This meant that I spent the majority of my time with my mom, step-dad, and sister. I did absolutely everything I could do to push my step-dad out of my life and nothing I did seemed to work. In high school my parents went on an overnight trip where they left on a Friday morning. I skipped school with my friends, stole their Jeep and went joyriding. I broke the suspension in their car. That didn’t get him to leave. Or there was the time I snuck into the liquor cabinet and stole a bottle of tequila that he’d been given as a gift from his aunt who had passed away. That didn’t make him leave. Or there was the time I was about 16 and ran away from home to my cousin’s house whose parents were gone. When Jon finally found out where I was and came to get me I physically fought him trying not to get in the car. I say fought, but it was just me trying to pull away and him trying to keep a hold of me. My shirt got torn and I had some scratches on my back from where he grabbed me. So I called the cops and said that he had hit and abused me regularly. The cops took me to the juvenile receiving center, a place where kids wait for their court dates. Who was there to pick me up the next day? Jon, I couldn’t get rid of this guy.

A few months later I got even more out of control. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when I got caught stealing at Media Play (remember those?). Again, the police took me to the juvenile receiving center while I waited for my court date. This time it wasn’t Jon that came to pick me up but instead it was Lee Caldwell, the CEO of Turnabout, a residential youth treatment program. For the next 11 months Jon came to every single parent group. He sat there and listened to me air out all my resentments with him. Even the dumb ones about how he’d always tell me to stop rolling down the window in the car because it would only work so many times and he didn’t want it to break. He and my mom listened to all of that. They took out a second mortgage on their house to pay for it and they worked just as hard as I did on fixing me.

Jon took responsibility for me even though he wasn’t my father. He chose to come to group, he chose to take out a mortgage to pay for my treatment. He could just as easily have said, “Not my problem, he’s not my kid” and let me go to jail. But he didn’t, because he decided to take responsibility for me and love me. It wasn’t his fault that I was acting this way, but he chose to own it and do the best he could for me. I can’t thank him enough for that

You can choose to be positive and move on. Stoicism teaches that there is no such thing as a negative situation, only a negative response to situations. Hell, Seneca even reportedly had a positive attitude when Emperor Nero ordered him to commit suicide. Nobody ever learned anything from blaming someone else. Blame is a way to make yourself look better without actually growing. Sure, this is an extreme example, but the point remains.

Try to think about a time in your life where you felt like you didn’t have a choice. If you’re up for it, please tell me about it in the comments.

Understanding the Present Using the Past

I was talking with a family member not long ago. We’ve had some issues in the past few years and I wanted to address them. After some emails, and texts back and forth we arranged a phone call. I made sure my kids were in bed and I had a quiet place to talk. When I answered the phone there were a few minutes of awkward conversation, neither of us wanting to bring up the elephant in the room. Then we finally got into the guts of it. We spoke about the issues we’d had in the past. But at every turn this person would say “I don’t want to focus on the past, let’s move forward.” and “Nothing good ever comes from talking about the past.” I was a bit taken aback. I didn’t understand how someone could hold this world view. To me, the past is the only thing we can learn from. Every single thing we know is from observing the past and building on it. After all, what’s the quote? “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s also possible to learn from the pasts of other people. We can read books, journals, interviews to learn about problems people encountered and learn from them without experiencing them ourselves.

What’s the first thing any therapist asks you when you walk through their door? Is it plans for your future? What kind of job you want? What you look for in a partner? No, they ask about your past. The past is the key to everything you do every day.

Ignoring the past because it is uncomfortable is just another way of avoiding pain, which I talked about in another article. Yes, it really hurts to realize when you’ve messed up. It hurts to realize that you’re responsible for every negative thing in your life. It sucks when you finally come to the realization that you’re the only one who can fix it. It hurts even more when you realize something you identify as part of yourself hurts the people you love. But it is important to address those feelings and decide whether the consequences are worth the behavior.

Tying the Room Together

Remember at the beginning of the article I told a story about my girlfriend? I’ll tell you how it ended up. We dated for about 2 years after that story. We had our ups and downs but we finally decided to get married. Not long after we got married I admitted to my new wife that since we had met I had been pretty sure I was an atheist. I definitely didn’t think highly of organized religion and would not be giving her the temple marriage she had always wanted (Trust me, I know how shitty that was to do). At the time I didn’t fully understand why I did what I did. I knew I lied to smooth things over and keep her in my life. But I didn’t know why I was so afraid of conflict or disagreement of any kind.

I’ll explain (without excusing that behavior). My parents used to argue, like all parents do. The problem is, my parents got divorced. Little kid me took that to mean that arguing meant divorce. When I met my wife, whenever we started to argue I’d feel a pit in my stomach. I was sure that every argument was going to be the end of our relationship. So my reaction was to be dishonest. I’d hide things from her that I knew would be upsetting. I’d not voice my opinion when I knew it would be something that could spark an argument. I’d just sigh and walk away instead of saying what I felt. It took a long time for me to make the connection that when tensions started to rise with my wife, the feelings I had were echoes of experiences I had as a child. These lies were devastating to our relationship. It took years of tears, reading, working together to begin to move on from the breach of trust caused by that lie and others. But it took brutal honesty and looking at my past to see the cycle I tend to fall into when it comes to relationships.

It took a lot of conversations and digging before I made that connection. But because I was able to make that connection and know that when I was feeling scared it was most likely a learned behavior. I could start to be aware of it. Now, when I have those same feelings come up, I can be honest about them and I can know that they aren’t necessarily indicative of reality. Sometimes I forget and regress back to my childhood self, but as GI Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle”. Once I was able to identify one behavior, I started to be able to identify others.

What behaviors, you ask? The biggest one was at the first sign of struggle I’d go into my shell and try to blame other people for putting me there. I play the victim so people can feel sorry for me and cut me a break. As a child that behavior worked fairly well for me. As an adult, it doesn’t look so great. Women don’t tend to find it attractive when their man blames the world for all his problems and wants her to feel sorry for him. But this is where the past comes in again. By digging through my shit and discovering the common cycles that I repeat I’m able to avoid them in the future. I’m not trying to walk through life blindfolded like I’m living in Bird Box. I’m trying to be a better, happier person and being stuck in victim mentality just isn’t compatible with those goals.

I’m happy to report that my wife and I have been married almost 9 years now. Our relationship is better than ever, but we still work on it every day. We both have trust issues, which is understandable but not helpful to our relationship, but we are working through them together. Knowing why we do the things we do helps our relationship. It helps us to know each other’s patterns. When I start to shut down and push my wife away, she knows that it isn’t necessarily because of what’s happening right now. It’s a learned behavior that I haven’t fully gotten rid of. She can call me out, “are you projecting?” and I can end it right there. The same goes for her behaviors. We both work together to learn about each other and help each other be better.

Over the Line

Another really important reason to examine your past is to set boundaries. Most people don’t go through life knowing exactly what is going to make them uncomfortable in a given situation. Most people have to experience something to know that it crossed a line and they don’t want it to happen again. Sometimes it takes years of experiencing something before a person decides they don’t want to deal with that behavior anymore. It could be anything from they way your girlfriend puts the toilet paper roll in the dispenser (out is the only way to go) to actual abusive behavior. Usually the way it happens is a person starts to realize that when a certain behavior occurs they always tend to feel or act a certain way. They may not make the connection at first, but when they do they know that they never want to experience that again. So they set a boundary. Hopefully the person they set the boundary with accepts it and takes in the feedback, but that’s not the way it always goes down. Again, how they react to the boundary is not your fault. But it is your responsibility to deal with the fallout.

Taking responsibility can be scary. You’ll have to confront a lot of demons and it isn’t going to be easy. I can say from experience though that it is totally worth the effort. I never felt more fulfilled than when I started taking full responsibility for my actions. It gave me a confidence I never knew I could have. I can talk to people in public.  I don’t fear people’s opinions like I used to. I can even speak in front of a group of people and not analyze every tiny thing about what I say and do. I can even write articles on the internet for people to tear apart and criticize.

I’m trying to own who I am and what I do and so far it has been more freeing than anything else I’ve tried. I’m not perfect. I still make mistakes all the time. What I can offer is brutal honesty, with myself and others. As Greg Anderson says, “Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.”  If that is your cup of tea, follow me to see more stories about how I was dragged kicking and screaming into being a semi-healthy adult.

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