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How Does Your Past Affect Your Present?

Most people would probably agree that their current attitudes and behaviour are influenced by their past experiences (it would be a strange world if this was not the case).

Two slightly different ways in which your past may affect your present are:

Past Experiences Affecting Your Belief System

Your current belief system, behaviour and feelings may be affected by past experiences and the consequences for you in the past of acting in certain ways:

For example, if as a child you were always heavily punished or crticised for acting in certain ways by adults or others close to you, then you may find that even as an adult you have an almost automatic tendency to believe that if you act in those ways again you will be doing something you shouldn't be doing.

Copying the Behaviour of Others

Another way in which your present may be influenced by your past is that you may have consciously or unconsciously copied or modelled behaviour of others and this may have become an almost automatic pattern for you - for example, you may find yourself acting in similar ways to your mother or your father even if when you think about the behaviour you can't see any good justification for acting as your parent did (Of course you may deliberately go the other way and consciously act in a different way to your parents - that may require some effort but is entirely possible!).

The Theory of Learned Helplessness

The theory of learned helplessness indicates how sometimes animals or human beings may learn to adopt passive or 'helpless' behaviour, even once the original reasons for their being passive are removed.

As with so many of these psychological theories this one started with some experiments involving dogs, in which dogs were given electric shocks (not something I would condone). Some of the dogs were able to turn off the electric shocks by pressing a foot-operated switch. Others were not and could not control the duration or intensity of the shocks. The results of the experiment showed that eventually the dogs that couldn't influence the situation stopped trying and became passive and exhibited symptoms similar to depression. In subsequent experiments where they could influence the outcome of the situation the majority of the dogs that had not been able to influence the situation remained passive - they had learned to be helpless, so that although they could now escape a problem situation they did not even try.

The Silver Lining

The theory of learned helplessness may sound rather gloomy but it has a silver lining.

Not all the dogs in the original experiments became helplessness. About one-third of them did not become helpless and in the subsequent experiments they did take positive actions to escape the problem situation when they could, despite their past experience of not being able to influence a situation.

According to an article in Wikipedia on Learned Helplessness, in human beings the characteristic that can help you to avoid learned helplessness is a type of optimism. Not a blind or naive optimism but a way of looking at a situation that sees that situation as not being personal or permanent.

Dealing with Learned Helplessness
or Feelings Flowing from Past Experiences

One cognitive behavioural exercise that you can use to help you start to tackle a feeling of helplessness or uselessness based on your past experiences is called the Explanations Exercise, given below:

The Explanations Exercise

Most of us feel anxious or experience irrational thoughts from time to time. Often there is a relatively simple background or explanation to why we are acting or thinking in an anxious or irrational way – this may for example be because of certain events in our childhood which make us sensitive in particular situations or it may be because of recent events, or a mixture of the two.

It can be helpful to write down in a few sentences what you believe to be the explanation for your anxieties or irrational feelings and then conclude with a positive statement as to what you are starting to do to try to gain control or to react positively when confronted with the anxieties.

Write down what you see as the explanation or background to your recent anxious behaviour or thoughts, then conclude with a constructive sentence describing what you are now doing to begin to take control or reminding yourself of what a more realistic positive view of yourself or the situation is.

Write your explanation in the first person – for example, you can use a format like: ‘I sometimes experience exaggerated worries that… I believe this is because … I am now learning to…’

An example of an Explanation Statement might be:

"I have a tendency to think that I do not deserve to achieve what I want in most situations. I believe this is because when I was younger my parents often criticised me and told me that it was selfish to want too much for myself. I now realise that as a human being I am entitled to have my reasonable needs met and to believe in a positive future for myself."

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

The above exercise is an example of a technique from CBT or cognitive behavioural therapy - for more information about CBT, go to: CBT - Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

 

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