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Dont Get Hysterical About The Historical

The tension was palpable in the room as I began the first marital counseling session ever for the couple who had passed their 50th anniversary several years before. After a few pleasantries designed to put them more at ease, I invited, "Tell me about what brought you here."

Immediately, she straightened up in her chair and asserted boldly, "I'll start!"

"Go ahead," I said.

She continued, "Let me tell you what this man did to me on our honeymoon!"

I glanced at her partner, and immediately I could see that this was definitely not the first time he had heard this story. I groaned to myself, "I should have scheduled more than one hour for this session!"

Clinging to the past?especially the negative past?can wreak havoc in workplace harmony, organizational progress, and personal peace.


Do you find it difficult to let go of holding on?

What experiences in your past do you hold on to, either deliberately or unintentionally? The woman in the counseling session had chosen to hold on to her husband's perceived transgressions, enumerating them for him at every opportunity. Sometimes, however, your past difficult experiences seem to interfere against your will with your life today.

A recent issue of Workforce Magazine listed "The Simmering Malaise" as one of the 25 strongest trends. They attributed this negative emotional undercurrent to the past few years of workplace trauma?downsizing, diminished financial benefits, loss of opportunity.

Things happen in our personal lives, too.

I heard about one guy who admitted, "I've had trouble with both of my wives."

"What kind of trouble?"

"First one ran off on me."

"And the second?"


Have you experienced traumatic events in your past or work life? If you have, and especially if you haven't been able to come to terms with them emotionally, you may find yourself overreacting any time something remotely reminds you of them. You may become anxious, leading you to misinterpret, suspect, and emotionally exaggerate.


Minimize the toll that unresolved history can have on your present life. Don't let past events rob you of life quality today.

1. Do the necessary emotional work, if you haven't already.

Unresolved grief, often masked by anger, can continue to distort your perceptions and keep you from free, positive actions in situations you confront today. When the damaging event(s) happened, how did you deal with them? Did you refuse to acknowledge the reality of your powerlessness to change what happened, mentally or behaviorally resolving to even the score? Did you stay busy, busy, busy so that you wouldn't think about it? Did you become angry and stay there?

If you answered "yes," to any of those questions, you may have some grief work to do. Spend time focusing on the emotional losses you experienced and let it hurt. I know, that's not fun. Remember, though, grief is temporary. And it persistently insists on your attention until you do it.

Courageously do the necessary grief work; it can free you from the grip your past.

2. Check your reactions for "overgeneralization."

When you have experienced a painful situation, it's easy to transfer your reaction to other situations that are in any way similar to it.

When my children were little, they were less than thrilled with their visits to the pediatrician, especially on the days they got shots. The doctor wore a white jacket. One day I was getting a prescription filled at the drugstore and my daughter began to cry loudly. I couldn't figure out why. Finally, she pointed to the druggist who was wearing a white coat and asked, "Am I going to have to get a shot?"

Have you ever had the experience of having an unusual negative reaction to someone you just met, without apparent bad behavior on their part? Do you sometimes jump to conclusions about others' motives, based on experiences you've had with people in your past? If so, you may have a tendency to overgeneralize, projecting your past onto your present.

Learn to separate "then" and "now."

3. Confront your fears. When you've been through work or personal trauma, it's normal to want to avoid such experiences in the future. However, avoidance can grow and can actually increase your overall level of fear.

As soon as possible, confront feared situations. Prepare yourself with courage, self-encouragement, and realistic skills.

"Get back on the bicycle after you take a tumble."

4. Rewrite history, with clearer emotional vision and self compassion.

Yes, there's a sense in which you can rewrite your history. You may be carrying memories that you stored at a time when you had limited understanding . It's easy to harshly judge your reactions from your current vantage point. "I should have known better." But did you know better then? Or were you doing the best you knew to do at the time?

As a more mature and experienced individual, you can look back on your life experiences with a broader, more balanced, more compassionate view. This will not change the facts of the events, but it may well change the meaning and interpretation you give them. That can make all the difference in the degree to which you continue to berate and condemn yourself. H.W. Beecher said, "Compassion will cure more sins than condemnation."

5. Practice Forgiveness.

When you refuse to forgive others for the harm they caused you, you tie yourself to them forever. You ensure that the traumatic experiences will rule your life and rob you of the freedom to build genuine life quality and experience peace.

George Herbert said, "He who cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself."

I've had people protest to me, "But if I forgive them, they'll go scot free!"

The truth is, your lack of forgiveness is not harming them, it's harming you.

Forgive to release yourself.

6. Learn from everything, and use it to build a stronger life and future.

I believe that every single thing that happens to us has gifts in it, if we look for them. Closed doors may cause us to step out into areas we would never have tackled under more comfortable circumstances. The loss of a valued support person can stimulate the development of self reliance as well as new connections. Being forced to leave a company during downsizing can be the impetus to explore new job opportunities or to start your own business.

One of the very best gifts in life's challenges is the opportunity to learn?to discover how to begin again, more intelligently.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek observed, "We live in the present. We dream of the future. But we learn eternal truths from the past." Learn to extract wisdom from your experiences.

Charles Kettering estimated that 99 percent of success is built on former failure.

Boy, do I find that comforting!

Dr. Bev Smallwood is a psychologist who has worked with organizations across the globe for over 20 years. Her high-energy, high-content, high-involvement Magnetic Workplaces (r) programs provide dozens of practical strategies and skills that can be put to work immediately to:

  • build strong leaders who influence and develop others through serving

  • energize, motivate, and retain team members

  • successfully accomplish important organizational transitions

  • impress customers and build their loyalty

  • Review a complete list of her programs available for your convention or corporate meeting at the website,


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