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How Christians Can Deal with a Dysfunctional Past

Updated on November 4, 2016
Carola Finch profile image

Carola is a Christian writer and author of three books. She writes about Christian living, the Bible, relationships, and other topics.

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Emotional baggage

I was as puzzled as the other people filing into a church auditorium when I saw a pile of luggage and a six foot cross on the stage. When a special speaker explained the props, their meaning became clear.

Every time we get hurt, we add a brick to the suitcases we carry in life.Some of our emotional baggage from our dysfunctional past can be heavy – physical or emotional abuse, parents with addictions, bullying, and rejection to name a few. For me, I wondered: what can I do about my own pile of suitcases?

Emotional abused. Physically battered. Bullied. Ashamed. Humiliated. These words defined who I was when I was growing up. I believed that I was an inferior being who did not deserve the same love and respect has others. I saw seemingly happy families and felt like an alien from outer space.

When I became a Christian in my early twenties, however, it soon became clear that God did not see me that way, and that I needed to make some changes in my thinking. I have identified several ways that keep us stuck carrying emotional baggage.

Some common effects of a dysfunctional past
low-self esteem
Inferiority complex, lack of self-confidence
fear, general and specific, such as a fear of authority figures
anxiety and/or compulsive behavior disorders
bouts of depression and hopelessness, suicidal thoughts
suppressed anger and resentment
guilt and shame
the pain of rejection

Things that keep us stuck

Denial and damaging coping behaviors

When emotional pain surfaces, we can choose to face it, deny it, stuff it, or control it through perfectionism or obsessive compulsive behaviors. The ony response that leads to emotional healing is to face it. It is very hard to admit that people, especially those who were supposed to love and protect us, mistreated and harmed us.

We may have hidden our pain for years, fearing that the pain will be too overwhelming for us to bear. It is true that we will feel emotional anguish for a while but this state is only temporary. Emotional healing is just around the corner (Psalm 146-7-8).

The illusion of control

As we grow into adulthood, we learn to manage our emotional baggage. Sometimes we mistake management for control. Some management techniques give us the illusion of control, but can be very damaging to us and the people around us. For example, a woman who grew up with parental criticism insists on keeping an immaculate house. As long as things are clean, she is OK, if not, she feels as if she has lost control and all hell breaks loose, especially for her poor kids. She rants and raves at them if there are imperfections in their neverending chores.

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The pity party and victim mentality

Poor, poor me. When I was in my twenties, I did not feel like a person "really knew" me unless I told them the dismal tale of woe that was my dysfunctional past. I would then reveal in the person's pity. I loved to see their sorrow at what I went through and the person's affectionate hugs that came with it. After a while though, they will probably roll their eyes and tell us to get over it. And they are right.

Allowing our past to define us

We see ourselves as victims rather than survivors. The apostle Paul tells us to leave our past behind and press forward. Self pity keeps us stuck in the past. We wallow in the mire of past hurts and humiliations and pile them up, brick by brick. When we focus on the wrongs done to us in the past, we feel angry, resentful, and stew in bitterness and unforgiveness.

Blaming ourselves instead of the perpetrators

When we experience dysfunction in early life, we tend to blame ourselves for things that are not our fault. For example, the people whose opinions I valued when I was growing up told me I was ugly and stupid. I blamed myself for their hurtful comments. I believed that I was an inferior being who didn't deserve the love and respect of other people. My lack of self-worth caused me to fail at work and in relationships.

Steps to Healing from Our Past

Step: Prayer

We need God’s help to deal with the damage done by our dysfunctional past. He promises us healing and wholeness (Psalm 147:3). We can ask God for a number of things to help us overcome our past,

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  • The courage to face our emotional baggage
  • Awareness of hurts and the triggers that cause them to surface
  • The strength to stop avoidance tactics such as drug and alcohol abuse or obsessive compulsive behaviors
  • hope for the future and faith that life can get better
  • The healing of damaging emotions such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, anger and fear

We can look at the people who hurt us and ask ourselves:

  • How did they hurt us? (e.g. abuse, neglect, rejection)
  • What emotional and/or physical damage did they cause in our lives?
  • Was the situation out of our control?
  • What was our part in the hurt, if any?
  • How does what they did impact my life today? (e.g. poor self-image, emotional problems)

Step: Recognizing The Damage

First, we need to face and admit how the people in our past have hurt us. We can’t take steps to overcoming our dysfunctional past if we deny the harm that was done and refuse to face it. Instead, it is time to look at the bricks in the suitcase and figure out where they came from. Sometimes, a certain environment is part of our dysfunctional background, such as growing up in poverty or a rough neighborhood. People are often the source of our pain.

Step: Extending forgiveness

We can’t move on until we forgive those who hurt us. We need to let go of our resentment, pain, and desire for revenge. These emotions will destroy us if we continue to let them fester.

Step: Support

We need other people to support and pray for us on our journey to healing (James 5:16). True friends will spot feelings and behaviors that we might miss. Their words can be a like a two edged sword, piercing our inner parts (Proverbs 12:18), but we need to remember to old adage, “no pain, no gain.” Pastors, psychiatric professionals, and programs such as Celebrate Recovery can also help us work through our issues.

Step: Recognize that healing is a process

We can put our emotional baggage the foot of the cross and ask God to take care it. Jesus died so that we could heal our wounds, including the harmful effects of our dysfunctional past (Isaiah 53:5). We need to leave our past behind us and move forward (Isaiah 43:18-19).

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Sometimes, we take back a suitcase or two and may not even realize it. Healing is a process that takes time. Sometimes, we stumble and fall back into our old ways, but that is OK. If we are genuinely trying, God promises to rescue us and renew our minds.

As time goes on, we will see exciting signs of recovery and progress. A brand new life is available to us if we reach for it and travel down the road toward God's healing (2 Corinthians 5:17).

© 2013 Carola Finch

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  • Carola Finch profile image
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    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thanks for taking the time to share your views. I was not offended by your comments - you are entitled to your opinion. God bless you too.

  • d.william profile image

    d.william 4 years ago from Somewhere in the south

    Thanks for the clarification and i meant no disrespect to you personally. We are all entitled to our belief systems. My intent was to show how some interpretations can be harmful and destructive rather than beneficial to mankind.

    Although the "holy" books may be inspiring in many ways they are not infallible in total, as they were written by men and man's imperfections are also included in those writings as well as the interpretations of those writing from their original languages.

    Using common sense and logical discernment when reading any religious diatribe is always necessary, as believing what we read as literal truth can be dangerously deceptive.

    God speaks to all of us in different ways, and having a spiritual connection with God is imperative in a balanced perspective of life itself. But realizing that some things taught are not logical in the sense that God demands nothing of us other than our acknowledgment of that spiritual connection. And rules/regulations that debase another human being are not of God's making, but rather the interpretations of gods words by the imperfect minds of humans. Diversity is part of our Creator's plans, the judging of others by their peers is not.

    And yes, you are correct that there is a much damage done to children by means other than religion, but abuse by religion has a greater impact on society as a whole. Neither are excusable by any means.

    I am happy that you found inner peace through religion. We get the assistance we need in many different forms, but the end results are what is important.

    The first consideration is to never deliberately do harm to another. God bless and keep you safe.

  • Carola Finch profile image
    Author

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thank you for your comments. Just to be clear, the abuse I suffered had nothing to do with Christianity or a church. As I mentioned in the article, I did not become a Christian until I was in my twenties. The scope of the article was all types of dysfunctional childhoods, most of which are unrelated to religion. I agree that some Christians have done a lot of damage, but frankly, that can be said of any group. Human beings are not perfect - that's why we need Jesus. I feel that the Bible is the inspired word of God and that a loving God gave us these words so that we can live a happy, fruitful life and experience emotional healing. I am not throwing out the baby with the bathwater because the bathwater isn't perfect.

  • d.william profile image

    d.william 4 years ago from Somewhere in the south

    voted up, useful, awesome and interesting.

    Great article, well written.

    Last night when i was watching the news i saw something that actually and literally made me cry.

    video of interview on CNN: http://youtu.be/Ea10c6VXVx8

    Truly sad that humans have done this much damage to other humans for the sake of religious fallacies. We all have much to learn about others, ourselves, and the damages done by false beliefs and teachings in the name of our Creator.

    Christianity must change and stop the hate against those they erroneously see less than themselves. God makes no mistakes. God hates no-one. Only man does that to mankind.

  • Carola Finch profile image
    Author

    Carola Finch 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    Thank you fo your comment.

  • MsDora profile image

    Dora Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

    Very comprehensive presentation on this subject of dealing with our past. Your step by step approach is very helpful. Thank you and voted Up.