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Perhaps you have had the experience of hearing a piece of muzak in a shop and leaving when the song is half way through. This can be very aggravating – you wanted to hear the end. Or perhaps you thought you recognised the song but couldn’t quite place it. This kind of thing can bug us for days – until we can think of the name.
These kinds of experiences show us that we have a longing for our experiences to be complete. What ‘complete’ means varies enormously – from the moment of satisfaction after a glass of good wine to perhaps years of mourning for a loved one who has died.
Most of our lives are made up of these complete experiences. A cup of coffee or a meal, walking out the door or off the train, a simple exchange of greetings or scanning the newspaper. Usually we don’t notice. Once something is finished with it becomes part of the past and is usually forgotten, at least consciously. (We can be reminded of past experiences that we haven’t thought of for years, so it may be that nothing is ever entirely forgotten.)
This forgetting of what is complete can lead to strange seeming occurrences. I like to read murder mysteries – having read all of Agatha Christie at least three times I find I can’t read her again. The curious occurrence is that I can remember what the novel is about but not who the murderer was. This is strange, it occupies my thinking for a good deal of the novel – it is at least a good part of the reason for reading. And yet it is this very detail that is forgotten. This aspect of the novel is completed by finding who the murderer was (and this is always done convincingly by writers like Agatha Christie) and so gets forgotten. Other things can be well remembered – Agatha Christie famously broke the “rules” with ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’ and this is usually very well remembered.
Most of our lives, most of the time, are made up of these completions. But then there are times, like with that pesky muzak, when the completing of the situation is interrupted. At these times we are ‘split’ – there is something going on ‘in the back of our minds’, so that we aren’t paying as much attention as usual to what is going on in the present moment.
These incomplete things are stressful – usually only in trivial ways but sometimes in major ways. Most of us have a few major experiences in our past that we keep going back to. Memories come back to haunt us, or we recall situations that we want to fix up: things we should have said, something that we wished we had done, or something we perhaps shouldn’t have said. Sometimes these past experiences can be so severe that they blight a person’s life. (An adult who was continually scared of their violent parent as a child may be a timid adult, even if their parent is long dead).
These past experiences are not yet complete and they absorb part of our energy – they are always at ‘the back of our mind’ somewhere. To have as much energy for living as possible we need a way to deal with these incomplete experiences.
This completing can happen in many ways. A stray remark overheard may lead us to change our mind. A movie or novel may connect deeply with us. Perhaps, for a reason we don’t know, we may just one day decide that we don’t need to be that way anymore.
It can also happen through a visualisation. A personal example. When I was young my mother put reins on me so I wouldn’t run away and be hurt. (Her intention was loving.) I hated these things at the time. In my 30’s I was thinking about my stiffness – how I didn’t relax and play easily; about how I was very deliberate and intentional in how I went about things. The image that came to me was seeing myself in a pet shop window in these reins (I think I was around 4 years old). I imagined myself as an adult coming into the scene with a huge pair of garden shears and cutting the young me free from these reins. When I visualised this a phrase came spontaneously to mind, “It’s OK to play”. I felt a relief and a lightness. This piece of my past – being held back from playing – had been completed. It didn’t happen immediately but since then I’ve been much more relaxed and playful. I haven’t had ‘in the back of my mind’ the frustration of not being able to play.
This is one aspect of psychotherapy: putting the past in perspective – so that it is part of our past and not something stressful, draining our energy in the present.
Those people with very traumatic pasts will have perhaps hundreds of these incomplete situations. And it can take years to complete even the main ones. If you feel that you are someone with this kind of trauma in your background, it is important that you find the support you need if you wish to finish with these situations.
Completing past trauma usually means getting what we needed then (and still need now). We may, for instance, have only been touched violently, we needed to be hugged and cuddled. There is a part of us that will still need this. It is by getting this need met that we can begin to finish with our past neglect. Or perhaps we were hit for nothing we had done – our parent just felt angry. We needed a protector. Perhaps we will need to learn to stand up for ourselves now – to learn that it is OK to say, “No.” No justification required – I just don’t want to do that. This can be true of any need – even the need to be free to play.
Each one of these completions give us a little more energy and reduces our stress. In the case of little things – like remembering the name of a piece of muzak – it will be a little extra energy. If it is completing a major experience, and learning to get an important need met, then it can be life changing.
Here are some ways for dealing with past experiences that you keep going back to and trying to ‘fix up’ (complete).
1. Visualisation. If you can picture the past situation. You can intervene in the situation in any way you like. You can give your younger self a magic implement of some kind (weapon, shield, wand . . .) or you can imagine yourself as an adult looking after the younger you.
2. You can ask a friend to let you talk to them. Let them know that you want to get to the bottom of an experience from your past. You will need a friend who is a good listener.
3. You can find a good therapist. (In my opinion it is best way is to ask those you know and trust about therapists they have been to and what the therapists were like. Then find one you click with and stick with them – unless you feel they are disrespectful to you in some way. If you do leave let them know why – you can send a letter if you don’t want to do it in person.)
4. You can go about meeting the needs which weren’t met for you in your childhood. You can do this in little and easy steps (no one says you need to make yourself scared). You may need to get support from others as you do this.
If you have completed things from your past in other ways I’d love to hear about them. Please leave a comment in the section below.
If you liked this article you might also be interested in:
or my review of Gestalt Therapy by Perls Hefferline and Goodman