Is Your Past Too Heavy to Haul Around?

Imagine a cloth bag containing 10 pounds of river rocks, their surface smoothed by years of water washing over them, tumbling them, moving them downstream. You are asked how long you could possibly hold the bag draped over your shoulder or held extended out from one arm. What might your answer be?

When I offered this exercise at a substance addiction out-patient rehab where I worked from 2012-2014, the teens would laugh and say that they could do it for an extended period of time. I nodded and they took on the challenge. Within moments, their resolve faded as they realized how heavy 10 pounds could be and try as they might, a minute or so was all they could handle.

I gave them a few options. They could either put the whole thing down or take the rocks out a few at a time and see if that made it easier to hold. The rocks represented the choices they had made, the drugs they ingested, the ill-advised friendships they had attracted and maintained, and even more powerful; the beliefs they held that enabled all of this to occur. I asked what it might feel like, in either case, to unburden themselves and stand up straight. Several had been bent by childhood events, losses, parental substance addictions, family dysfunction and the concomitant choices they had made and thought they still had to. I reminded them that their history need not be their destiny.

That line remains with me each day as well. My history is not my destiny, regardless of how deeply entrenched my beliefs might be. I consider my own life lessons that led me to buy into the mindset that told me I had to develop into an overachieving Type A personality to overcome childhood health challenges. When I was four, I was diagnosed with asthma that required frequent trips to the family doctor’s office for allergy shots and far too often for my comfort, sitting in my parents’ bathroom, in the wee hours, breathing in steam as it billowed out from the running shower until the hot water ran out. It kept my lungs open and functioning rather than feeling at times like a collapsed accordion. Added to that was the podiatric impediment of being pigeon toed and flat footed that required wearing red, clunky orthopedic shoes. Not exactly the height of fashion for a time when penny loafers, moccasins and sneakers were accustomed footwear back in the 1960s.

Bless my parents for encouraging athleticism and reminding me that I could do anything I set my mind to. Admittedly, I took it too far at times, wanting to stay ahead of the crowd. Why should that be a problem? It became so when enough never felt like enough and my hyper-critical persona that I call Perfectionista came to call with increasing frequency. There were times when the desire for stellar performance and productivity overshadowed good sense and exceeded my body’s ability to keep up. It hit home in a life-threatening way on June 12, 2014, when a fully occluded artery sent me to the hospital for the insertion of a stent to prop it open and functioning and allowed me to remain on this side of the veil. Even now, five years later, I remind myself that I need not prove anything. I’ve earned my chops personally and professionally. I can still strive for excellence and scale the wall without hitting it.

In my therapy practice over the years, I have worked with clients who face such challenges. They tote around the bag of rocks that could have labels on them that read: “You’ll never be enough.” “You won’t succeed, so why bother?” “You can’t compete with your siblings.” “He or she is favored by others.” “You are always at fault in the eyes of others.” “You can never come out on top.” Some feel excluded from the proverbial Winner’s Circle and carry resentment that impedes their forward progress. Sometimes we are able to break through those roadblocks or least take a temporary detour. Those who insist that they have no choice but to feel as they do, are doomed to add rocks to the bag and become bent from the burden. They express that if they put the bag down, then it means the other people who handed it to them in the first place will get away with whatever it was that they did. 

Questions I ask:

  • Can you go back and change the events that occurred?
  • If you had a time machine, and could return to the original experiences, knowing what you now know, what might you have done differently?
  • What beliefs arose from the original occurrence?
  • Do they benefit you or hinder you?
  • Do you want to continue viewing your life through limiting lenses?
  • Do you want the people in your life to reinforce your attachment to the old story?
  • Can you re-write the narrative?
  • What is your investment in maintaining the beliefs, and is there secondary gain?
  • What thought can you change that might free you?
  • Are you willing?
  • Where could you go and what could you do if you put the bag down completely and never hoist it up again?

As I was writing the article, the song “The Rock and the Hill by Allison Moorer came on the radio which was the perfect reinforcement of the topic. 

Are you willing to be rock steady instead of standing on rocky ground?

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