Focus on the present moment… Just put the past behind you… Do the next right thing…
Coping skills, building virtue, and time management may reduce chaos, reduce anxiety, and improve our functioning and relationships. But what if you feel that old feeling or fall into that old pattern, and find yourself in the same song-and-dance… again…?!
How about your view toward the future? Is it optimistic or riddled with anxiety? What is your track record for meeting goals or maintaining intended changes? We can learn to offer our day and our future to God, we can learn to make SMART goals and so forth, but does that keep the seeds of the past from popping up again? Some people call this relapse. Some people call this the past making itself present.
If you have a garden or neighborhood park, you may notice how the flowerbed or grass often sports some kind of leafy or flowery varietal that wasn’t deliberately planted there – these are often referred to as “weeds.” The “weeds” tell the tale of what kind of care that patch of land has received in the past, whether there has been a drought, how the neighbors care for their yard, how the previous owners cared or didn’t care for the garden, etc.
Now, let’s take dandelions for example: is the “weed problem” solved by picking the flowers and blowing the seeds? Nope, that would be synonymous with entertaining anxiety about tomorrow, or saying “this is just how my life is,” sowing seeds of stress into the future. Do the “weeds” go away if the leaves are plucked? No, the garden may temporarily appear to be well-kempt, but the old roots will produce a visible weed soon enough.
To resolve the weed issue, the roots need to be addressed, and removed. As you might have guessed, present patterns of emotions, behavior, thinking, and relating often have roots, too.
Coping skills and cultivating good habits, including virtue, are good and can go a long way toward health and wholeness. However, if there are past roots that are still feeding the present struggles (leaves), and sowing seeds into the future, then that root system needs to be addressed and resolved.
Our ability to practice those virtues and habits consistently – without being super-rigid – depends largely upon what kind of care the garden of our minds, hearts, and souls have received in the past. The Adaptive Information Processing (AIP) Model (Shapiro 2018) states that our brain processes information that we take in during each day adaptively – that is, we learn from our experience in ways that helps us adapt and grow – when we are prepared to handle and/or have support to handle our daily life experience. (God gave us an effective life-digestion system!) However, if we encounter something that we are unprepared, unable, and/or unsupported to handle, that experience may not be processed or may be maladaptively processed; this means that we are unable to fully move forward or learn from the experience, and the what we “learn” from it is not adapted to our lives in a helpful way.
Unprocessed past experiences manifesting in the present may look like flashbacks, panic attacks, or unexplained impulses, mood or attention shifts. Maladaptively processed past experiences may show up in the present as repeated unhealthy patterns, limiting or negative beliefs about self, or overly harsh or passive responses to others. The woman who easily navigates and achieves her education and personal goals may find that she keeps finding herself in relationships that go nowhere, or worse, are abusive. The man with otherwise strong character and virtue will feel like he is playing “whack-a-mole,” and losing, with a pattern of temptation or vice. You can see how these roots can often extend into the spiritual life, causing all kinds of difficulties and leaving us unable to truly receive God’s grace, love, and healing.
If you identify with any of these examples, some past root, experience, or wound may need to be addressed, healed, and reprocessed before grace will really soak in and growth can occur. Because we live in a fallen world with other imperfect human beings, we encounter many life experiences that we are unprepared to handle. These experiences may not meet objective criteria for being “traumatic,” but they may benefit from trauma-focused approaches to healing such as EMDR therapy, inner healing prayer, or both. When those past roots are healed, adaptive approaches to life often come more easily. In fact, the coping that you are already doing may begin to be effective in a stable and life-giving way.
So if you have been struggling with issues for years, using all kinds of spiritual means and not sensing that you are finding lasting healing or stability moving forward, pause. Take a minute. Consider the natural level – could there be some “weedy” psychological or emotional experiences that are getting in the way of grace, the way of overcoming a bad habit, or relating more deeply and intimately with God? Perhaps.
Maybe it’s not all spiritual weakness, or vice, or a “cross” that you have to bear. If this fits, consider an intake interview with a Catholic therapist, perhaps one trained in resolving and healing traumatic experiences, to help you overcome those issues. Two referral resources are catholictherapists.com and catholicpsychotherapy.org.
“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:30 (NABRE)
Sacred Story: An Ignatian Examen for the Third Millennium – an Ignatian approach to personal psychological and spiritual healing