“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”
Oh, boy. In the coaching industry I hear these phrases all the time:
“Time to move on.”
“Don’t look back. Look forward!”
“You’re stuck in the past!”
“Your future is ahead of you!”
All this stuff sounds so encouraging and enticing. Who doesn’t want to move on?! Who wouldn’t want to just get over it already?! Where can I sign up to work with this person who will magically erase my past?!
Not only is this approach dangerous to vulnerable people (as well as deeply unethical), but it’s incredibly uneducated. It takes about 30 seconds in Google to figure out that neuroscience has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that trauma memory is held in our subconscious until we take conscious steps to release it.
If you don’t believe me, here’s a link for you to read for yourself: https://www.besselvanderkolk.com/resources/the-body-keeps-the-score
(I don’t receive any compensation for referring you to this source. I’m just a genuine fan.)
Here’s the truth about overcoming trauma
You don’t move on, you move through. The subconscious brain isn’t linear. It doesn’t watch experiences fade in the rear view mirror. It gets out of the car, finds the nearest hiding spot, and stands watch, day and night, to guard you against the next attack.
The reason certain people trigger you is the same reason soldiers with PTSD have a hard time with fireworks and engines backfiring:
It reminds the subconscious brain of something horrible that happened in the past.
Here’s an example:
One of the most triggering things for me is being called “perfect.” It’s been known to make my heart race and my armpits sweat. It’s usually meant as a compliment. People generally mean well when saying it.
But when I was a kid, being anything less than perfect was unacceptable. And since I’m far from perfect (so, so far!), I felt like a constant failure. I felt inherently less-than.
I ended up living this very strange, dichotomous existence of wanting desperately to be both invisible and seen at the same time.
And how did I figure this out?
By looking back.
Through lots and lots of therapy and introspection – by courageously visiting my painful past experiences – I rooted out the original trauma, held it in my hand, and examined it closely.
I had to understand the why behind my strange reactions to that word – perfect – so that I could give my subconscious permission to stop trying to protect me from it.
It was uncomfortable.
It took time.
And it was well worth the effort.
The unexplored Sara was reactive and defensive. The unexplored Sara is snappy with the acquaintance who tells me that I always look “perfect” when they run into me at a networking event.
The unexplored Sara is suddenly 11 years old again, feely gangly and awkward in too-short pants, knowing that they don’t fit the way they should and hoping to god nobody will notice if I pull my socks up high enough.
The explored Sara takes a deep breath, quietly lets my subconscious brain know that grown-up Sara has got this situation under control, and politely smiles and says good-naturedly, “Oh, believe me, I’m far from perfect! But it’s so fun to get dressed up sometimes!”
The unexplored Sara intuitively could feel when judgmental eyes were scanning me for flaws, and made biting, perfectly composed passive aggressive digs that left my opponent stunned, confused, and hurting. (Take it from me – having the exactly right come back isn’t nearly as satisfying as one might assume.)
The explored Sara can intuitively feel when someone is using judgement to mask deep insecurity, and finds something beautiful to compliment in order to set the other person at ease.
Not only does moving through trauma make you a more pleasant person to be around, but it also makes you more comfortable in your own skin. Every time we allow our past trauma to influence our present behavior we plant seeds of shame inside our hearts that fester and eat us from the inside out.
Moving through stops relational shame cycles in their tracks, freeing both you and the other person from awkward exchanges, hurt feelings, and toxic spirals. Unexplored trauma is what makes people toxic, including ourselves.
Ignorance and cowardice
People who tell you to “face forward” and who act like people who are looking back don’t have a “growth mindset,” are both ignorant and cowardly.
Ignorant because they obviously don’t know about basic brain science.
And cowardly because they obviously aren’t doing any of their own courageous exploration of the why behind their thoughts, feelings, and actions.
Someone who “doesn’t waste time looking back” is wasting a whole lot more time trying to outrun their past, and managing all the drama that erupts due to their own subconscious, unexplored trauma responses.
And this is based on the assumption that the person “moving on” has the best of intentions; that other people’s exploration of their past is triggering their subconscious held trauma and that makes them try to silence all reflection, their own as well as other’s.
Unfortunately, it is also quite possible that someone knows exactly what they are doing by encouraging others to just “move on.”
Perhaps they have something to hide that they’d rather the other person not remember.
Or perhaps they know that the only way to sell their product or service or business plan or religion or political agenda is to keep people in a heightened state of trauma trigger.
When we are triggered, we can’t think clearly. Sadly, there are those among us who benefit greatly from other people’s muddled thinking.
Is it possible to be stuck in the past?
Certainly! There are plenty of people who choose to stay stuck in the past, for a multitude of reasons: they fear change, they fear their memories, they get attention from others when they complain, their past seems better than the present or the future.
Regardless of the reason, none of these are good, either. But being “stuck in the past” is not what this post is about. And ultimately, they are just different sides of the same coin. “Moving on” without any internal reflection is just as damaging to self-confidence and interpersonal relationships as dwelling in the past.
Either way, you’re stuck.
If anything, dwelling on the past is more intellectually honest than “moving on.” At least they admit that the past actually happened.
“Moving on” is a futile effort.
Moving on is not only impossible, but it’s an inefficient use of a beautiful life.
Moving through is the one and only way to truly shut off our trauma and grow.
There really is no such thing as “moving on.” There is only the choice to courageously step in and through your traumatic experiences (which we all have), or the choice to put it in a box and lock it away where it can sprout bitterness, resentment, and unforgiveness.
No amount of restating, no matter how emphatically, that you have “moved on” actually makes it reality. Your subconscious doesn’t care what your conscious mind speaks. It only cares about the held memory that doesn’t disappear simply because you want it to.
Enjoy your journey, friends. Don’t get so lost in seeking to “move on” and be better-than that you forget to be present. Your life is happening right now.
Be careful you’re not trying so hard to outrun your past that you aren’t experiencing all the ways your life is beautiful and inspiring in your present.
Love learning about boundaries, accountability, and grace?
Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with all your burning questions!