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It’s Not in Your Head: Your Past Really Does Impact Your Future

How often have you felt the need to move on from your past? Phrases like “the past is the past” and “what’s done is done” litter our Instagram feeds and take center stage during self-growth workshops.

But here’s the truth the social media influencers won’t tell you: the brain doesn’t just move on from the past, especially if the events occurred over time and consistently.

In other words, our past does define our future, and it can significantly affect our ability to achieve goals. But why?

Your Brain Keeps Score (A Brain Science Explanation)

Your brain is a data processing machine. It continually receives, processes, and stores data. In fact, we receive around 11 million pieces of information every second, requiring our brains to do a lot of rapid-fire processing.

When we first encounter data, our brains decide in the moment how to handle and respond to it. Of the 11 million pieces of information our brains receive per second, we only capture around 50 of those pieces of information, and only seven of them are processed by our working memory.

So, in one second, your brain makes massive decisions that determine how your experiences are engrained.

That’s part of the reason why siblings can have vastly different recollections and feelings about their childhoods or why friends can have totally different interpretations of a party. The way their brains responded in the first moment they encountered the data in the past cemented their feelings about it (and anything similar enough to it in the future).

Unsurprisingly, these experiences and real-time processes are the breeding ground for biases. Biases are filters that our brains use to process situations efficiently while also keeping us safe. For example, if you had an experience where you got sick after eating a certain type of food, your brain now likely has a bias against that food. My business partner still won’t eat onions because of this bias!

These biases are primarily built on past experiences, so if we never override them, they could be what’s driving our decision-making, and they could easily get in the way of finding new information.

It’s easy to see how our past experiences shape who we are, especially since once something is stored and used by our brains, it’s always there. And the longer we’ve drawn on information from the past, the more likely we are to continue to rely on it because the physical size of your neuropathways actually increases every time you repeat a behavior or thought.

The larger a neural pathway, the harder it is to change. So, the longer a thought pattern, behavior, or bias has been in your brain, the longer it’s going to take to change it and the more energy it requires to do so.

Again, here’s your past making day-to-day life and new discoveries harder!

3 Tips for Getting Over Your Past

It is possible to stop letting your past rule your future. Here’s how.

1. Start Your Own Archeological Dig!

The first step to overcoming your past is to uncover what your brain has already processed. It all starts with self-awareness and curiosity. You don’t have to do anything yet except ask yourself some questions like:

  • Why do I have this point of view?

  • Why am I thinking this way?

  • Why is this making me nervous?

  • Why do I think this is okay?

If you aren’t sure where to start, watch the news. Then, see if you’re siding with one side of the argument or the other. If you are, ask yourself why.

If you find that a particular candidate, topic, or event causes some negative emotions, ask yourself some questions:

  • What’s making me mad here?

  • Why am I feeling frustrated?

  • What’s making me say things like, “that’s stupid” or “that’s wrong”?

Remember, all your filters are based on your previous experiences. Take some time to figure out what conscious and subconscious biases are driving your behavior.

2. Figure Out What Works For You And What Doesn’t.

Once you’re aware of your biases, ask yourself what you might be missing out on with this point of view. Are any of your filters causing you to leave things on the table? Conversely, what behaviors and biases from the past are helpful to you and your goals?

Really think about what past-based behaviors and biases are hindering and helping you, and be intentional about them. If you aren’t being intentional, you’re living your life on autopilot—forever ruled by your past.

3. Start A New Neural Pathway!

If you have biases and data that don’t serve you, you can start creating and choosing new data and patterns instead.

Do something every day that challenges your filter. Even one simple to-do centered around your bias can help crack open new possibilities. For example:

  • Read a few pages of a self-help book every day

  • Find a quote of the day to challenge your thinking

  • Listen to a new news station to open your mind

  • Talk to someone whose beliefs challenge that bias

Start small and be consistent. All a habit is, is something small done consistently over a period of time. If you want to change your habitual processes and thoughts with new ones, do something small every day.

Use reminders and be consistent until the neural pathway is created.

Understand Your Past to Take Charge of Your Future

If we’re not getting the results we want, or if we feel like we’re missing out on things, that can be a clue that we need to dive into our past and identify what sort of data and experiences have shaped our current thought processes.

Recognize the effect the past does have, but then use your tools to carve out some new pathways and open yourself to new possibilities unencumbered by your past.

If you want to examine how your filters may be affecting your present, coaching can help.


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