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Blasted From the Past

In my practice and in my personal life, I simultaneously watch and experience the emotional fallout from our Great Recession.  Month after month, people continue to lose their jobs, their homes, and their sense of security in the world.  These losses can trigger a cascade of feelings, emotions, attitudes, and behaviors – some conscious, and some very definitely unconscious and below the radar.  A lot of old personal issues are being revealed now that have been there all along but have never before been dealt with.

I am still amazed and dismayed that so many people – particularly men – don’t see how widespread the suffering and fallout is from these economic hard times.  So often they look around, think most other men are doing better than they are financially, and start condemning themselves.  They compare where they are – unemployed or underemployed, in debt, in foreclosure or bankruptcy – and imagine that they are part of a small, guilty minority.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

People who aren’t coping well during our current hard times tend to be burdened with self-dismissive and self-destructive attitudes.  In my practice lately, I’ve seen so many people with feelings of shame and embarrassment, who blame themselves for their circumstances, who feel worthless and like a failure, who feel guilty or at fault, or who feel “less than” and not as good as other people.

We can all fall into the trap of identifying ourselves personally with what we do for a living, the house we own, the car we drive, the vacations and toys we’ve acquired.  Our sense of value as a person can get wrapped up in our image and our material goods.  We can end up feeling only as good as our status symbols.

However some people, more than others, are really taking themselves down now in significant ways, becoming depressed, discouraged, and defeated.  Why is this so?  It’s often because of the old, re-stimulated personal issues I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  Men and women with painful pasts, with histories of rejection or abuse, or survivors of traumatic experiences, especially during the early developmental phases of their lives, can easily slip into old, destructive thought patterns.  The enormous stresses that they’re under today are causing their old, traumatic symptoms to reemerge.

These symptoms can range from the self-destructive attitudes I outlined above, to self- and other-destructive behaviors like verbal and physical abuse or substance abuse, to deteriorations in physical health – migraines, insomnia, high blood pressure, other serious conditions and diseases.  Present-day stress triggers unresolved pain from the past, the old pain makes it more difficult to deal with the problems in the present, and a vicious cycle begins.

If you are having an extraordinarily difficult time right now, consider that you may be suffering from more than present-day difficulties.  Maybe you’re aware of things in your past that still trouble you, or maybe you are unaware of anything that happened to you that could possibly be considered “traumatic”.  Give yourself permission to recognize how you may have been negatively affected by the people and events of your life.

The point of this self-searching is not to make excuses for self-pity, however.  No one, and I repeat no one, can get away with taking on a victim mentality and survive these hard times.  Becoming aware of your personal challenges and unresolved pain can allow you to get help to deal specifically with your history and your situation and to get unstuck.  In other words, if you find yourself drowning, it would be good to notice the heavy weights strapped to your ankles and get rid of them.

Don’t sink to the bottom.  Don’t go down for the count.  As much as possible, without self-criticism or condemnation, explore the past problems that you’ve put off dealing with.  They’re holding you back.  They don’t have to.  There is help out there – go find it.