Common adages like “leave the past where it belongs” or “look to the future” or “no point in crying over spilled milk” and my favorite, “just live in the present” are used by loved ones, coaches, therapists, mentors, and other very well-intentioned people in our lives. They use these phrases in an attempt for us to not dwell on things of the past, but instead on the present and the future.
Neuroscience is now showing that there is no present or future without a firm understanding of the past and its impact on the neuron and synaptic pathways of our intellect–the very functionality that we use to interpret the present and formulate the future. As it turns out, negative experiences are stored faster and in many cases, permanently. This is required primarily as a defense mechanism for our survival. As such, they are also retrieved much faster than positive experiences and in many cases–especially under threat or stress–the negative experiences play a larger role in interpreting the present and future, whether we are actually conscious of it or not.
So telling someone you care about to not think about the past is actually a neurological impossibility.
In the business of professional development, there is no larger issue than relationship management. In my experience, this is the number one struggle for working professionals. Whether it is a micro-managing boss, an egotistical peer, an over-bearing spouse, or whomever, these dysfunctional relationships cause a cyclical state of stress and threat.
I often get asked, ”What can I do to get along better with him/her?” or the infinitely impossible, “What can I do to change him/her?” Very good and valid questions… but the wrong first questions. The first question should be to understand what it is about him/her that triggers the negative experiences of your past.
Stress, and threat–in my opinion–are almost entirely self-induced. These people with whom we have poor relationships today are merely causing the filing cabinet of our negative experiences to be accessed. This impacts our day-to-day ability to be happy, productive, and creative. This–and this alone–is the initial cause of stress and threat.
Everyone has this file cabinet and our day-to-day experiences are constantly accessing our file cabinets. People with high degrees of self-esteem are those who embrace these negative experiences as sources of strength. They are aware of what’s in the cabinet first, and then use them as reasons to be strong and richer.
Take, for example, the mothers who founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) in response to losing their children to drunk driving. Had they not used one of the more tragic experiences any human being can endure (burying one’s child) as the source for their present and future, they probably would be in some form of trauma every time they see a car wreck or read about it.
Being present and being optimistic, both of which are great qualities of happy and effective people, are not independent of our past. Decoupling the past from the present and future is not only virtually impossible, it is in fact losing the opportunity of a source of great strength and self-esteem. This week–when anyone or anything bothers you at work, take a quick inventory of what in your past was triggered. If you are brave, you will surely learn that you have a great deal of power of yourself, and certainly more than anyone else can or should have formally…. especially at work.