Changing Our (Relationship to Our) Past: The Here and Now and the Presence of the Past

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The imperative to live in the here and now can be taken in two ways — one, an invitation to broaden our awareness, and the other, a demand for the narrowing of awareness.

Here and Now

Our experience happens here and now. We (almost always) have a sense of our memories and plans that is different to our primary experience — what is happening where-when we are.

This window (of perhaps a few seconds) between the past and the future is where we live. This is not to diminish the importance of analysis, labelling and anticipation (and many other things that we do with our experience) — it is only to point out the difference. Remembering a favourite memory, which we have returned to over the years and which has been enriched by sharing with others, may even be more pleasurable than the initial experience; I just want to stress the difference.

The observation that we live in the here and now is of great importance I think. It has also, in some quarters, acquired some of the moral force of an injunction. It becomes equivalent to, “You should live in the here and now” — rather than in the past or future — or the idea that to live in the past or future is to be only half alive, to miss the vividness of the here and now. I agree with this in one way but not in another.

The moral commands of the “Be here now!” kind I think can be taken in two ways — one helpful and one unhelpful. The helpful way is as an invitation to awareness. This is an invitation to broaden our experience — for instance to remember why we stopped thinking about something (perhaps there was something painful that we would rather not know about), observe the kinds of things we daydream about (perhaps this will give clues to unmet needs), or become aware of how we think about an issue (it may be that we have locked ourselves into an approach that can’t address the issue).

The unhelpful understanding of ‘be here now’ takes the morality of being in the here and now as a demand for the narrowing of awareness. It is taken as a negative judgement on remembering or anticipating. For instance: you shouldn’t dwell on the past (and just wallow in resentment), you shouldn’t worry about the future (the imagined catastrophe may not happen), or your fantasies are just an escape (your should face up to real life). This command to narrow our awareness leads to our fighting ourselves — one part wants to remember or anticipate and the other part wants to suppress this. This absorbs some of our energy; over time it can absorb increasing amounts of our energy. This will lead to our having less energy to live in the ‘here and now’; our here and now experience becomes one of fighting ourselves or alternating between unreconciled desires. Narrowing our awareness also ignores the possibility of learning from our fantasies, memories and worries. Perhaps our fantasies can help us know what is unsatisfactory in our current situation, perhaps a memory being triggered means that there is a link between our current and past experience we weren’t aware of, perhaps planning future activities may contribute to activity being more pleasurable for all concerned.

The Presence of the Past

By the time we have gone through adolescence to adulthood we have had many experiences that are significance to us: conflicts with our authority figures, moments of intense pleasure or tedium, relationships that were satisfying or frustrating.

We carry our past with us — in the way our brain cells are connected, in the habits we have acquired, in the training(s) we have learned to follow, in the attitude with which we meet life. Some of the past we are conscious of, while other parts we have forgotten (until we are suddenly reminded of things or have intense reactions triggered by a remark or event).

I think it is usually useful to have our habits, training, attitudes and so on (our past) available to us, to be able to bring our past into our here and now experience. We do this by doing things like activating our walking habit to get places, utilising our reading skills to process things like this blog post, and trying out different attitudes when developing a relationship.

Changing Our (Relationship to Our) Past

Bringing the past into the here and now means some degree of awareness. And this awareness means that we can act on the way our past is present to us. We can change our relationship to our past.

One example of this is de-conditioning a phobia. The process is one of gradually becoming more and more comfortable with the feared object or situation (or proximity to the feared object or situation). We monitor the activating of the past — or reaction to the object or situation — and intervene in this process. We may move away from the object or situation, alter our thoughts or our breathing, and so on.

In a relationship we may realise that we are responding to someone because of something that happened in the past (in this relationship or a previous one). If our parent addressed us by our full name when we were in trouble, then someone addressing us by our full name may lead to our feeling childlike. If someone who was dangerous to us had a particular mannerism, then when someone else uses this mannerism we may go on to high alert. Or we may find that we have slipped into unhelpful attitudes or habits in our current relationship. Once we realise that we are responding to the past rather than the present, it becomes possible to intervene. This may mean paying closer attention to the other person in the relationship (so that we see clearly how they are different to the person in our past) or things like talking to our partner about different ways to relate.

It isn’t possible to change what happened, but it is possible (with some work) to change our relationship to what happened — and in this way have a richer and more enjoyable here and now.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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