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Dear Doctor:

I am pestered by bad thoughts and feelings from the past. How can I desensitize my past and live more in the present?

Dear Bothered:

In some strange way, we are enablers of our own bad feelings. I guess that, as long as we feel bad, we think that there is a chance of undoing some awful event in the past. We think that we can step back in time.

Also, giving up bad feelings means (in part, at least) giving up one's identity. We think that who we are is defined by awful things that happened to us. If we get rid of our bad feelings, who are we? This is a frightful question.

This restlessness of the mind comes from a feeling of being defective and a fear that other people can see it. You continuously test how you look to other people. You are fussy about your appearance. A term for this testing is self-consciousness.

Step #1 is to acknowledge the irreversibility of bad events. They seem to be alive, because they are connected to the present by the continuity of time, but they are, in truth, over and done with.

Because "the present" is just a continuously moving line between the future and the past, it is too brief to hold meaning. Creating a bridge across this moving line are memory, which looks backwards, and intention, which looks forwards. Memory and intention are necessary to make "the present" long enough to hold meaning. When some unwanted thought or feeling appears that is connected with the past, it is necessary, for the sake of sanity, to recognize it as a memory - "That is a memory."

If we are obsessed with guiltiness, we are trying to justify our bad behavior. Just as we do when we worry, we go over and over the incident in a vain attempt somehow to make ourselves out to be in the right. The truth is, we can't justify ourselves. We can't change what we have already done. Our only hope is to seek self-forgiveness instead of self-justification.

As Emerson said, "[Every man] must take himself, for better or worse, as his portion." This portion includes everything in the past - the awful happenings along with the awful thoughts and feelings that accompanied them and that still reverberate in the present.

Step #2 is to notice them. We can notice them and name them. If, after a little while, they don't disappear, we can say, "Mercy! Stop! Enough!" Enlisting mercy is getting on our good side.

It might be that you are a particularly sensitive person, naturally. Who are you, then? Answer: you are a very sensitive organism, a self, once upon a time pained by a thousand assaults (physical assaults, punishments, insults, humiliations, disappointments, bad news, etc., etc.). However, as Emerson said, life only avails, not the having lived.

The disadvantages of being this kind of person bring along with the disadvantages the advantages, as well. It might be that you are better attuned to reality than most people.

Useful sayings:


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