There is a great horror series called The Haunting of Hill House. There’s this family, and they go through a lot, and there are ghosts. At the start they’re regular spooky people, flashing past in the background, lingering menacingly, cracking jump scares etc. As the show continues, it becomes clear that the ghosts are a pretty eerie metaphor for traumatic memories, and how they influence our present and future.
Signs Your Past Is Haunting You
Working through traumatic experiences can be a kind of haunting. We can get feelings of discomfort and anxiety because of haunting images from our past, we can go through real-life jump scares when something innocuous reminds us of something awful. Some people find themselves avoiding places or even topics because they feel unsafe in the way a haunted house does. We might not be able to pin down what’s scary, but it can still impact us. Anyway, if you like horror it’s a good show.
Everything we think and do is influenced by our past experience. What we like, our patterns of relationships, choices big and small are all shaped by what we’ve learned. The most extreme “haunting” comes out as post traumatic stress disorder. In PTSD, we have sometimes crippling reactions, because we have experienced ways that the world sometimes isn’t safe. The past also comes back to haunt us in many ways that aren’t this intense. We might find ourselves slow to make decisions, or untrusting of people who remind us of people who have hurt us before.
How to Release Painful Memories
There are many routes to dealing with the ways painful memories might impact us negatively. The first step is to be aware of the patterns. Noticing when a response to a person or situation doesn’t quite fit is a good habit. Fact checking what you’re assuming is another way to neutralise any ghosts that might be limiting us. For example, looking at alternate explanations for things, and being open to having people surprise you in a good way. A classic is assuming that someone is cheating on you because they don’t text back quickly on a night out, after having a previous partner do that. Your current partner might not be looking at their phone, or might have run out of battery. If you assume someone is going to be angry you’re late because of previous experience with others, reflect on the current situation, it’s always possible your assumptions aren’t accurate.
It’s tricky when ghosts turn out to be real, in the way that something from your past keeps happening in different situations. This can reinforce assumptions, and makes it harder to be open to things being different next time. Looking at the evidence for and against an assumption each time will stop it being an assumption, and can make it a lot easier to deal with. These assumptions don’t only need to be about other people’s reactions, we also assume a lot about ourselves. We can take as given that we will react in a particular way to things, when with a bit of reflection and forethought, we can be aware of this, and react in a way that works better for us.
Talking to a mental health professional can be a great way to start, but another one can be working through our own “ghost stories”. Try talking with a partner, or friend, or even writing out a narrative of what has happened to shape your current state. A lot of ghost stories resolve by understanding the ghost, what hurt it, and what it needs to find peace. Doing this with ourselves can be a great source of insight and lets us be clear about what we need in the moment. We might be able to rest our ghosts with conversations about feeling secure in relationships, or by giving ourselves a moment to breathe before going into a potentially stressful situation. It’s not the magical time travel of Hill House, but it’s as close as we can get.