How Christians Can Deal with a Dysfunctional Past
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
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.
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
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,
- 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.
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).
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