That Was Then; This Is Now: The Art of Leaving the Past Behind

leaving past mistakesOften a young person feels like once they make a decision or hold negative self-perceptions, they cannot alter either. A lack of years worth of life experiences contributes to their inability to see how much power they possess. When your client talks to you in tunnel vision terms, you can challenge them to see the broader scope.

People of all ages can learn how to leave their past mistakes behind and improve their self-esteem. Understanding how much power they have to leave their pasts behind adds to their empowerment. Open up a dialogue with your young clients about the art of separating their pasts from the present.

The Dangers of Living By a Label

The classic 1980’s film The Breakfast Club resonated with millions of teenagers. The movie tells the story of five different individuals forced to spend a Saturday in detention together at their high school. Each student represents one of the major social groups in a typical high school: the jock, the prom queen, the nerd, the outcast, and the burnout. By the end of the film, the characters have broken through their labels and bonded with each other.

Many people felt touched by this film because they recognized themselves in one of the characters. Teenage clients of yours may have already told you what label they claim. It may feel like a natural fit, or it may have been forced on them by classmates.

Labels are best for canned goods and laundry instructions. A teenager who shows a talent for sports may also feel like they don’t fit in with the popular group. A teenager who excels in science and math classes may also be the class president. Students who do well in all of their academics may also be experimenting with drugs or alcohol. People are complicated and don’t fit easily into just one category.

Teenagers Who Know They Can Change May Experience Less Depression

Research reported in 2014 by the University of Texas at Austin compared the depression rates of teens when educated about the changeable nature of personality traits. One group was given information about how their personalities can change. The data assured them that it was not because they had a deficient or non-malleable personality if they were bullied. The other group was not offered this same information.

Nine months later, a follow-up on the two groups found something surprising. The rates of clinically significant depressive symptoms in the group not given the information about the ability to change who they are rose by about 39 percent. The group of kids given the affirmative information showed no increase in depressive symptoms.

Try talking to your young clients about this phenomenon. Even if the teenage years prove difficult, as they often do, the knowledge that their lives are not written in stone can help them fight off mood disorder symptoms.

Make a List Defining the Differences Between Then and Now

Adolescent clients who are dealing with a substance use disorder have their hands full. They often obsess over the poor decisions made in the past. They may feel their hands are tied when it comes to reinventing themselves. Try asking these young people to make a list of what in their lives feels like it belongs in the past. Have them make another list of what actions or emotions they would like to see replace their previous choices or experiences.

Examples from a list like this might include:

Then: I used drugs or alcohol as a sedative to mask difficult emotions and experiences.
Now: I talk openly to my therapist and family about how I feel and what challenges me.

Then: I became frustrated easily, which caused me to give up on challenging schoolwork.
Now: I keep my teachers in the loop about any extra help I need. I dedicate time to do homework and keep my parents informed about my progress.

Then: I once felt shame about my mental health issues and try to hide my condition.
Now: I talk to my therapist about my symptoms. We brainstorm ways to avoid feeling embarrassed for a condition that is not my fault.

Applying Then vs. Now to Others

Once your clients better understand the concept of leaving the past behind, they can go one step further. Ask them to think about which people in their lives might fit a similar bill. Maybe a parent used to treat them in what felt like an unfair manner. Is that parent trying to leave that behavior behind and be more supportive?

Maybe the child feels an urge to judge a fellow student who doesn’t fit in. Ask them to consider what label this other teenager might be trying to reject. When we all try to let go of prejudgments, everyone wins. Just as a client can reinvent themselves, they might want to acknowledge those around them who are attempting to do the same.

Many young people struggling with addiction to alcohol or drugs find themselves taking up residence in the past. They dwell on previous negative choices and mistakenly believe they cannot change themselves. Teaching your clients the art of separating then from now can help them move forward with confidence. They benefit from being taught that they are capable of rejecting labels and can reinvent themselves. It can be eye-opening to apply this same knowledge to those around them. Sustain Recovery specializes in teaching adolescents and young adults how to leave their pasts behind. We treat substance abuse disorders and co-occurring mental health issues. Our long-term programs can help your clients face their addictions and leave them in the past. If you have a client who has not thrived in previous treatment programs, call us today at (949) 407-9052. We are happy to discuss how we can help them embrace recovery fully.