Eckhart Tolle, in his best seller <<The Power of Now>> started with this sentence: “I have little use for the past and rarely think about it.” He proceeds to explain for few hundred pages on why we only have to focus on the present for our power.
I disagree, I believe that our past is a rich fountain of resources of wisdom, lessons and clues that can inform our present and future, if we only know how to tap on them.
Here’s an example that jumped out from a recent conversation I had with a client.
Shirlyn (not her real name) is a girl with a big heart. She has great future plans of becoming a person of influence and being able to positively impact lives in developing countries like Cambodia. She plans to achieve her goals by starting a social enterprise, giving the poverty-stricken regions in Cambodia jobs, teaching them highly valued skills so that they can make money for themselves.
Yet, when we chatted, she shared openly with me that she feels kind of lost. Currently, she is in the training and coaching industry, which she confessed was not resonating with her goals in life.
All that changed when I started to ask about Shirlyn’s past, and that is the point of this piece; to show you how powerful your past and your stories can be, in guiding you to a future that’s right for you. So when I asked her about her past, three main themes of her stories jumped out at me.
The first being Acceptance. She confided that she was never the popular kid in class, she would constantly get ostracized and treated like an outcast by her peers. She would feel good whenever she would answer the teacher’s questions but that joy would quickly fade away when she sees the look of “Quit Showing Off” on the faces of her peers. Her struggles did not end there though, at home she faced similar problems too. She felt that she was always the odd one out, the fish out of the water, the ugly duckling. Her parents would constantly favor and dote on her siblings, comparing her to her siblings in academics and belittling her when she does not perform as well as they did. All this came together to make her feel inferior, incapable and incompetent.
The flipside of Acceptance also turned out to be our second theme, Rejection. Shirlyn shared with me that she faced one of the most painful rejection a person can experience in life. One day, she accidentally overheard a conversation between her parents in their room. They were discussing about her, and how a fortune teller had predicted that she will not amount to much in life. To her extreme sadness, her parents accepted and agreed with the fortune teller’s predictions. Unsurprisingly, the impact on her life has been disempowering. Parents are the people who are supposed to nurture, care and provide unconditional love for their children. But none of those qualities is demonstrated in the behaviors of her parents. The coming together of the previous two themes created the final theme in her story.
Because of all the people in her past putting her down and giving up on her, she always has this feeling in the back of her mind telling her, “I’m not good enough.” Whenever she would go for a job interview, a contest, or a competition, that she would always get shortlisted into the top three position, but for some reasons she never understood, she would never win first place. In an increasingly competitive market where the winner always takes it all, this has been a source of pain for her. This may even be a niche she could own because this is something that many people can resonate with.
I explained to Shirlyn that this could be a reflection of what her parents had to say about her, that she would not be able to succeed in life. Even though she is insanely driven to succeed to prove her parents along with all her other naysayers wrong, the reason why she wants to succeed is not a healthy one. In the back of her mind, the story told by her parents about her is what could be causing her to unconsciously sabotage her success. This “nearly man” experience of hers is something she could potentially tap on and make changes to so that she would stop sabotaging herself in life. Next, it was also important for her to see the moment of separation from her parents; the moment that she got hit with the rejection, and accept it for what it is. There is no benefit to sugarcoating what inherently is a very hurtful thing to happen to a child. It’s one thing to be criticized and ostracized by your schoolmates, but the pain of being rejected by the people that were supposed to love you for who you are cuts deep.
Imagine for moment, how different things would have turned out if only one of her parents said, “Shirlyn will be fine. She’s not perfect, but she’s independent and always been quite self-driven and I believe she can take care of herself”? In the stories of our past hurts, there’s usually a “missing savior”, someone who would stand up for us and refused to give up on us. Imagine how different would her life had been if she had not felt rejected by her parents and had that person who would have her back?
Unfortunately, that did not happen in this case, and that is precisely the reason why she is carrying this emotional baggage with her to this day. Through our discussion, she also came to realize that it wasn’t just what her parents did to her, but also what they did to themselves. Imagine the experience of going through the process of delivering a child into the world, raising her and then writing her off. By being resigned to her not being successful, they had also consigned themselves to suffering.
But that does not mean that she has to suffer too. The decision to give up on her was her parents’, and not any fault of hers. She does not have to carry around her parent’s self-inflicted suffering. She will then be set free of the burden of having to proving herself, and any future success will be a reflection of her capabilities and efforts, and richly deserved.
This whole experience made her feel a clarity which she confessed she has not felt in a long time. Realizing that the big unifying theme of her life is about acceptance, not just from others, but about everything that is, Shirlyn is able to gain clarity about her future. She now knows that empowering others is about helping them to free themselves of suffering, and embracing and accepting bigger possibilities. Her social enterprise endeavors are about helping the underdogs, the written-off, and giving them hope for a brighter future.
In his book <<The Power of your Past>>, John P. Schuster said this, “Many of us don’t have a useful, full relationship with our past, the kind that could inform us for a lifetime. We avoid the difficult parts and underuse the enriching parts, when we could draw lessons and energy from both. Don’t let our speed-addicted, now-biased culture’s widespread ignorance about the gifts of the past keep you from harvesting the lessons of yesterday and putting them into the hands of the person who can use them wisely—you.”
I urge you to let go of the amnesia of your past and pay it a heartfelt visit. Sure, it may hold many painful memories and things we wish didn’t happen, but what we don’t realize is how these stories are inhibiting us from being the best versions of ourselves because of all the emotional baggage that weighs us down. The ghosts of our past also have much to teach us about ourselves, and it’s just up to us to muster up the courage and face them if we wish to grow. And only then can we use these lessons to guide us to a future that’s right for us, because sometimes the answers are already there, but we just aren’t looking in the right places.
Coen helps individuals and teams to better present their ideas. If you’re working on a presentation or a pitch to investors, or looking to dig deep into your life’s story to better position yourself, you can engage Coen for a 1-to-1 no-obligation 25-minute conversation. Coen also speaks on authentic leadership, helping leaders bring the best out of their employees through values-alignment.