Conversations with Myself: Accepting the Past


Accepting the past is hard work. Avoidance of any part of the past that makes me uncomfortable used to be my go-to strategy, even though it never worked for long. I guess it’s the opposite of the tendency to obsess about everything I ever did wrong. (For example, reliving that humiliating interview 43 years ago, or that meeting I mishandled in 1995, or a hundred others.)

Whether I’m trying to forget or can’t stop reliving those long-gone episodes, the effect is the same. The emotional intensity and pain survive as parts of my do-it-to-yourself depression kit. These days the periods I want most to forget were the ones when I was living, or rather buried, most deeply in depression.

Avoiding the Past

I tell myself there’s no point ruminating about a past I can’t change. Bad things happened, but it’s over, let’s move on, etc. That can be good advice, but in this case the solution to obsessing about the past by shutting it out of my mind creates its own problems.

  • I avoid looking closely and realistically at what happened.

  • I accept the verdict of my then-depressed mindset that the whole thing was a disaster.

  • I try to deflect the difficult feelings of pain and loss associated with that part of the past.

  • By shutting it out, I’m preventing myself from healing.

If I have really come to accept what happened in that period of my life, why do I flinch away from the memory of it? Why do I want to push it so far away that it feels like part of another person’s life?

I started to think about this recently when a friend asked me to contribute to a publication relating to my former work in public policy. I had had a long career in the field, but my sense of it had been colored by the last several years when depression took an ever greater toll.

Internally, I felt I was collapsing, and there was plenty of external criticism from the people who were depending on me. All my efforts to carry on a demanding worklife fell apart. That’s the way it was in the last years, but that wasn’t the whole story.

Generalizing Memory

Depression tends to simplify memory of the past. All the separate events, whether good or bad, crowd together in a long indictment listing your crimes and misdemeanors. So it was for me. Years of work, full of ups and downs, became a shadow I never wanted to look at.

Trying not to think about that oversimplified past, however, cut me off from a big part of my life and set up rigid rules about what I should not do, who I should not see and what I should not recall.

I didn’t even want to read about that profession for fear of reliving the worst moments. It was as if by paying attention to that part of the past I would somehow become that depressed person again. Despite all the changes in my life since that time, I seemed to hold onto a visceral fear of being “found out.” I can’t really put words to the feeling since it was a fear that provoked an instinctive avoidance.

I had been trying to compartmentalize what I do now from what I did then, yet that only deprived me of my own wholeness as a person. It was like living in the different rooms of a house. I was one way in this room, a different way in that one, and I always stayed out of the attic where I kept the old stuff. But it was all under one roof.

Keeping a big part of my experience separate meant that I couldn’t relate different aspects of my history to each other or make the connections that could help me learn more.

Reconnecting with Experience

When I told my friend that I was reluctant to revisit that part of the past, he made a connection that helped me reframe the experience. He pointed out that I had spent a lot of time in my earlier profession helping people get unstuck when they were in difficult situations and that I was doing something like that now in writing about depression.

He thought this was an obvious parallel, but I had been so unwilling to look at that part of my history that I hadn’t seen a connection. I had only wanted to focus on the dramatic differences between now and then, between a time of wellness and a time of depression.

The effect of this change was to dispel the fear that had kept me from wanting to reconnect with that phase of my life. The need to run from it disappeared, and I could appreciate the range of experience, both the things that had gone terribly wrong and the things that had gone wonderfully right.

Part of the fear of looking at the past had to do with the lingering belief that depression and disability were part of a fixed identity. For years when I had been depressed, I had believed that I held within me a sort of monster who had to be kept confined. Without thinking explicitly about it, I had made the depressed man of that period into the new monster, the part of me that had to be locked away, out of sight and mind.

I’m grateful for my friend’s insight. Perhaps it’s a sign of how much has changed that I can immediately grasp the importance of such helpful ideas and use them to reclaim another dimension of my life.

Are there parts of your experience linked to depression that you have tried to avoid thinking about? Have you been able to make any helpful connections between then and now?

This is an updated post from the archives.

11 Responses to “Conversations with Myself: Accepting the Past”

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  1. Sean says:

    John, your writing continues to show a maturing and again you provide a beautiful commentary on such a delicate aspect of depression.

    This idea of looking at depression as an integral whole to our individual human condition shines a bright light in my own circumstances. It is as if that my roadmap to recovery these days gives much more time for this type of idea, rather than when I began some years ago it was all about pushing the negative aspects of myself away or as you describe so well here, compartmentalise.

    I do agree with Donna’s discernment that a positive of this strategy is that it can give you one focal point at a time to work through, explore and find much learning in. On the other extreme it actually divides us from the very miracle we are as a human being.

    Right now I working through the common feelings of being ‘found out’ as you mention. What is different this time around is I am confronting this idea in a new spirit. Without fear it is as if I am sitting across from depression and conversing why I simply shouldn’t introduce him to the world. In this way there is nothing to be afraid of, in particular as I recognise how far I have come forward in my own recovery.


    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Sean –

      I’m glad to hear that you’ve been making progress in this way. I agree that the great thing is to be able to confront whatever you find in depression as just another part of yourself. Depression brings up all sorts of fears and unease, but I have learned a lot from staying with whatever the feelings are rather than trying to block them out. The whole experience really does change as I do that.

      My best to you —


  2. Lisa says:

    This is an angle I hadn’t thought of and I wonder if allowing myself to think about the time in my life that triggered the depression and PTSD might help me get past it. It has been a long time, and my therapist at the time, whom I no longer see as she decided I was “cured” a couple years ago, had pushed me to ignore the past in order to move into the future. I’m still not really in the future and haven’t let anybody close since — it’s been almost 5 years. In fact, you could say, I’ve pushed my extended family away and struggled to keep my kids close. Hmmm… Thanks, John. I think it’s time to meditate. 🙂

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Lisa –

      I guess the trends in therapy have moved away from looking at the past so much, but here I’ve just been discovering and writing about a different approach that goes right back to the deepest past. I can’t see that any separation is possible between what you do now and what you learned in the early days when you picked up ways of reacting that don’t work so well in the present. Let me know if the latest post on coherence is at all helpful.

      My best to you — John

  3. John W says:

    I have to say I am still in the early stages of recovering from depression. I would say my initial 7 of the last 9 months were devoted to getting me the right medication. This in conjunction with therapy has moved me into the right direction. I was in a constant haze of numbness and anger that I couldn’t tell how badly I was hurting the ones I loved and myself. About 2 months ago was when things started to ‘click’ back into place. I had worked real hard at getting a job back into the financial industry, and took control of my life when things seemed the bleakest. When I finally stepped out into mental ‘clarity,’ I realized that I had to take some ownership of how I got into that haze in the first place. At one point in my life, I realized I had taken a part of myself, and completely shut off what was important to me. I had let a bad previous experience taint my view of my own history. It was almost like having a bad boss for 1 year out of a 20 year work experience: resulting in calling the 20 year experience bad, even if you had 19 great years with previous bosses. When I shut out that part of my life, I shut out an important part of myself which contained good things. I have to say that this was a contributing factor in my depression. I remember telling myself that I would never relive that bad moment ever again, so I shut out that moment and anything related to that moment. It seemed almost reflexive than intentional. I can understand compartmentalizing some uncomfortable moments, but in doing so I shut off a part of myself that needed healing and repairing. I had to revisit those moments so I could
    1. Release the shame and anger
    2. Allow myself to feel vulnerable so I could let good things back in.
    I hope I am making sense. This is obviously a work in progress for me.
    -J Dub

    • Donna-1 says:

      I think the good thing about compartmentalization, for me at least, is that it takes discreet packets of time/emotion/action and packs them away. And then I am able to deal with them a bit at a time rather than feel overwhelmed by everything in my past.

      • John W says:

        Thank you for sharing your story. I did not mean to say that compartmentalization is wrong. I think in many cases it can help. You are right about using it to help single out feelings rather than let the flood gates open. I know that overwhelming feeling all too well. I remember standing at the kitchen counter looking out my window wondering how will this all work out when I feel so bad. I really don’t have an answer except that you are not alone, eventhough many times you might feel like you are standing by yourself. The funny thing about all of this contemplation is that my Dog was the one that nudged me out of my depression. I am very thankful to my 4 -legged friend who nudged me away from my window.

        Going back to compartmentalization- I Do not know how to talk to my parts of my depression. I guess right now I am trying to face it head on. I don’t know if that is good or not. To face that pain still makes me upset, but I can function. When I look at it, I still cry. But it is controlled and quiet. Even now, this very minute my wife who is sitting 3 feet away from me has no idea i am crying profusely because I am trying to face my depression head on. I can turn it off at will, but I have yet to learn to converse with my facets of depression. It is a work in progress for me. i am trying to grow from this instead of being paralyzed from it. Thank you for listening.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, John W –

      I think you went through something similar to my experience – letting one bad period eclipse everything else in the line of work I did for 25 years. Lots of shame and anger accumulated, and there was lots to let go of.

      I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been making this difficult turnaround.

      All my best to you — stay with it!


  4. Judy says:

    Everything you say here makes sense to me and I’ve certainly done it, though not so much any more. However, two things stick out for me when I think about this. One is, I don’t have a lot of memories of childhood and the ones I do have, it’s almost more painful to remember better times because they’re in such stark contrast to the bad times and almost don’t feel “real.” The other thing, something I avoid thinking about, are the last years on my job which were so utterly demoralizing and stressful and which were made worse by the fact that they triggered PTSD, so it was a bit complicated. They almost erased the years that were actually fun, when it was a different environment and different people.

    I get what Donna says, too, about rejecting yourself before the other person has a chance to. That’s been my usual MO, but that feels a bit more under control for me now. I’m glad Donna got the response she got from the person interviewing her!

  5. Donna-1 says:

    Oddly enough, I have always thought of compartmentalization as a good thing. In fact, I used to have a therapist who used some sort of guided imagery where I placed all the “bad” stuff in the attic of my mind. And if I wanted to access that bad stuff, I had to go this circuitous route to get there, which was supposed to discourage me from doing so. What matters, I guess, is that it helped me at the time. I put aside some bothersome ideas and was able to leave them alone instead of constantly rehearsing them. But maybe there is a difference in putting to rest an obsession and totally avoiding the past. I, too, have frankensteined a monster. Made her up out of all the years of depression, suicide attempts, psychiatric hospital admissions, missed days of work, lost opportunities (see? I have no problem naming all of the parts.) My problem, really, is opening my mouth and putting a face to that monster when I’m interacting with people. Including people I don’t even know. I went for an interview this week for a volunteer-or-pay job teaching art and creative writing at a community center. For whatever reason (and I need to look more closely at this) I found myself verbalizing self-doubt, self-deprecation, and even admitted a mental illness before I even knew what I was saying. Her response? “You and I seem to have a lot in common!” Can we honestly overcome the human foible of lumping the good in with the bad? It’s difficult, isn’t it? I need to work on first impressions. I know I’m rejecting myself and criticizing my past before the other person has a chance to do so. Not a very nice way of attempting to protecting myself!


  1. Storied Mind says:

    Conversations with Myself: Accepting the Past…

    Conversations with Myself: Accepting the Past There are times when I try to shut out a part of the past…

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