There is a famous line from The Princess Bride that has stuck with me since I first saw the film as an adolescent: Westley says to Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” It’s a particularly cynical view of the world, one that fails to take into account the amazing depths of beauty and grace that are available to us at different times of our lives. But the idea that life is pain… well, it’s not entirely wrong, is it? We all experience moments in life that seem defined by pain, from catastrophic events like the deaths of loved ones to the comparatively mild humiliations of high school that nevertheless always seem to burn. We all hold elements in our pasts that hurt, that we’re ashamed of, that we’re still upset about—memories that are still so fragile that to recall them feels like pressing on a half-healed wound.
It can be tempting—so tempting—to turn away from these memories and pretend they never happened. People say all the time that we shouldn’t wallow in the past—that, after all, the present is what matters now. I agree that it’s not healthy to live in the past or to get so caught up in memory that we aren’t able to look ahead toward the future. But neither is it healthy to ignore our own histories, to lock bad memories away in a drawer and throw away the key. Because you know what? Eventually, inevitably, someone is going to open that drawer, and all of those memories—all that pain—will flood out and drown the present. As painful as it is to confront an uncomfortable past, this difficult work is essential to building a positive, life-affirming future. Here’s why:
1. In facing the past, you learn from your mistakes
Bad experiences are valuable lessons. I know that when you are in the throes of anger or heartbreak or grief, the idea that you’re supposed to be learning something is insane, perhaps even offensive. But when the memory has cooled and you have some distance from it, it’s possible to go back and take something valuable from it. We learn through experience—and it’s important to take advantage of all of those lessons, even when they hurt.
2. You learn from your successes
If you’ve cordoned off a whole section of your past with yellow police tape, you might be blocking positive experiences along with the negative ones. Peel through the layers of your memory—were there things that you did well, things that you’re proud of? Don’t let yourself forget them in the process of attempting to forget the things that hurt from the same period in your history.
3. Hiding from the past is exhausting
The past never simply goes away. Hiding from it takes a lot of mental and emotional energy—energy that you could be pouring into building a positive future for yourself.
4. You can’t get over it until you’ve faced it
Until you’ve spent some real time and effort getting over your bad experiences, they are just going to linger in your consciousness. When you acknowledge your past—even if the acknowledgement itself is painful—you can finally start working through it.
5. Facing the past can help you heal relationships
Sometimes we cut people out of our lives because they remind us of things we want to forget. By facing and working through difficult memories, we can build relationships on our own terms. On reflection, you might feel that distancing yourself from a destructive person was absolutely the right thing to do, but you might also find yourself becoming open to renewing relationships with people who were once important to you.
6. Sometimes pain lessens over time
The adage “time heals all wounds” is a cliché for a reason. A lot of painful experiences will become less painful with time—but how would you know if you’re not willing to open up the drawer where you stuff that experience to see how you feel about it now? You might find that when you force yourself to confront a difficult memory—a bad break up, a fight with a friend—the pain that was so intense in the moment is simply less powerful now. The realization that time in fact does heal all (or at least some) wounds can make us less frightened of being hurt in the future.
7. Dealing with your past gives you power
To take ownership of your history is an inherently powerful act. You’ll carry that power and confidence into your present and future.
8. When you hide from the past, it defines you
Ironically, when you hide from your memories, you run the risk of having those experiences define you. All of the work that goes into ignoring your past detracts from your ability to fully explore who you are.
9. When you ignore the bad stuff, you also ignore the good
When you lock away bad memories, you end up locking away a lot of good memories, too. I know from experience that a bad break-up can make a whole relationship feel tainted. One of the most painful aspects of breaking up is the feeling that all of the good experiences that you had with your ex have now been taken away. But losing those experiences is a choice we make—a decision based on a fear of feeling pain. If we can confront that hurt and work through it, we can recover some of those positive memories and be able to appreciate the joy they carry.
10. If you can’t face the past, you can’t be honest about who you are
Our experiences—good and bad, joyful and traumatic—define who we are. If you ignore important aspects of your past, you are ignoring important aspects of your core self. That does not mean that, if you’ve done something in the past of which you are ashamed, you have to be defined by that shame. Instead, it means that you can see yourself honestly and make productive steps to change: you become someone who hasn’t always been perfect (who is?), but who has the ability to transform and grow.
11. If you’re not honest about who you are, you can’t build a strong future
You can only build your future based on who you perceive yourself to be right now. If you’re lying to yourself about your past, or if you’re ignoring essential aspects of your experience, you are building your future on an unstable foundation. The past doesn't dictate our futures: if we want to change our lives, we have the power to do so. But we can only move forward into a space of transformation from a place of honesty—and that means facing our memories head on.
Images: Prathima/Flickr; Giphy (6)