How to tell if your past affects the present

Woman with long black hair standing in front of rusted blue metal door

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Have you argued with others about what happened at a gathering? Chances are you’ve been baffled by their account of events, and can’t work out why they saw things so differently to you. Perhaps you haven’t realised how your past affects the present, and in turn, how you interpret events. 

Only one reality?

Do you think there’s only one reality? Then how do you account for the following scenario?

Rosa and Joe are at a party with 15 people they’ve known for years. During the party, a couple of their best friends have a spat while they’re standing next to Rosa and Joe. 

For five minutes the woman scoffs at everything her partner says. He looks cross as she rolls her eyes and mutters under her breath.

Rosa’s body tenses up as she studies both their faces. She senses a major blow-up is on the way, and wants to escape before it happens. A little later, she tells Joe she feels uncomfortable because their friends are furious with each other.

Joe’s astounded that she wants to leave. He tells Rosa he’d just been talking with his mate. If there was anything wrong, he’d have noticed.

After a heated discussion, Rosa and Joe retreat to opposite sides of the room. Each is amazed at how the other could be so wrong. 

Rosa and Joe were in the same room for the same length of time. So you’d expect they each saw and heard the same things.

Obviously not.

Their descriptions of what happened are poles apart.

I’m sure you’ve all had a similar experience. Someone else has an opposite opinion to you about the same event. And each of you is 100% certain you’re right, and the other is wrong.

If there’s only one reality, this shouldn’t be possible, should it? We’re not talking about multiple universes of physicists here.

We’re talking about ordinary everyday reality.

So what is your “reality”?

Most people believe everyone else sees life the same as they do. The same colours, the same events, the same emotional expressions.

You may also assume everyone has the same belief system as you. And that words like “love” or “family” mean the same to them as to you.

Then a series of incidents brings you up with a jolt, and you make a discovery that shocks you.

Not everyone thinks the same as you

Suddenly you realise that not everyone thinks the same way you do. And they don’t believe the same things you do. Worst of all, they don’t agree about what’s right or wrong.

They don’t even agree about reality.

Sometimes this is so surprising that people refuse to admit it. They prefer to think everyone needs and wants the same things they do. And that because they’re always “right,” they know what’s best.

These people are extremely attached to their world view. In fact, they’ll defend it even against proof it’s misguided.

We all have different perceptions

Actually, it’s true everyone perceives colour slightly differently. So when you and your friend argue about the wall being green or blue, you’re both right. Your own lived experiences are different.

And you’re used to the idea that we experience foods differently. Some people can taste bitterness in foods that others can’t. Some gulp down burning hot chillies, while others reach for the ice.

Similarly, in a social situation, you’ll perceive things slightly differently to someone else. It all depends on your genetics and your previous experiences.

In addition, we all tend to focus on different things, even when we’re in the same room. It just depends what you’re interested in.

So adding all these things up, it’s not surprising that we all experience social interactions in slightly different ways. And very few of us realise how the past affects the present. 

Take Rosa and Joe above. Let’s look at each of their families of origin.

1 Rosa’s family

Rosa comes from a hard-working family of market gardeners. Her father brought his family from Europe to Australia in search of financial security. He was an old-style father, head of the family, and his word was law.

Rosa never dared cross her father

If anyone crossed Rosa’s father, he’d explode in a rage so terrifying Rosa trembled for hours. She tiptoed round and kept the peace if he drank too much. Whenever he threw things round the house, she had a nervous tic.

But after Rosa left home and began work, she forgot the tension she’d lived under. 

She and Joe have been married for twenty years now. Joe’s pretty easy-going, and never loses his temper. 

However Rosa still feels edgy when others disagree. Her stomach churns, and she wants to escape as fast as possible. She scans everyone’s faces, searching to see how angry they are, and tries to make them all stop arguing.

Rosa has no idea why she feels so worried at these times. That’s “just the way she is”. She has no idea that her past is affecting the present. 

2 Joe’s family

Joe, on the other hand, comes from a family of outgoing sportspeople. Both parents loved biking, hiking and playing team sports. They encouraged their two sons to get outside every weekend.

Neither parent talked much about their thoughts or feelings. But Joe remembers a fun childhood, full of adventures out in nature. He barely remembers anyone raising their voices, and knew his parents were there if anything went wrong.

He and his brother learned that teamwork helped everyone reach their goals.

Two very different families

You could hardly imagine two more different families. Rosa’s experience of a volatile, violent father led her to expect that others would show anger the same way her father did.

Normally, when she feels safe, her childhood fears are dormant. But as soon as she hears raised voices, she’s flooded with fear.

Rosa becomes hypervigilant when distressed

Then Rosa scans people’s faces for any signs of potential danger, whether emotional or physical. Panicky feelings sweep over her, and she feels sick and shaky.

In contrast, someone who hasn’t experienced violence may not feel distress in the same situation. They certainly wouldn’t be on high alert the way Rosa is.

Rosa may also have a genetic tendency to feel anxious in stressful situations. Anxiety induced by stressful childhood experiences may then combine with her inborn tendencies to make her easily panicked.

3 Rosa’s sister is more resilient

On the other hand, Rosa’s older sister, Laura, was never intimidated by their father. As a child she ignored his behaviour, and went outside to play.

Now as an adult, she’s far more confident and outgoing than Rosa. She may have a different genetic makeup to Rosa. So she may not have such as strong inborn tendency to feel anxious.

And she may have developed her own strategies to soothe herself when their father was in a rage. Although Laura went through the same childhood experiences as Rosa, she has greater resilience.

4 Rosa’s past affects the present

Rosa is highly stressed when she tells Joe she wants to leave the party. Her fear of a wild argument makes her desperate to get out of the house. But she’s unaware her childhood reactions are driving her behaviour.

Joe’s past affects the present too

And Joe is totally genuine when he says he didn’t notice any problems between the arguing couple.

Coming from an unemotional family, he’s not used to picking up emotional cues. Arguments in his family were few and far between.

So he doesn’t associate raised or tense voices with strong anger. In his experience, irritations or annoyances passed quickly, and were soon forgotten. They’re nothing to worry about.

Therefore Joe doesn’t see much cause for alarm. He’s amazed at Rosa’s belief that the couple are headed for trouble.

5 What is “truth” when perceptions are involved?

So both Rosa and Joe see what they believe to be reality or the truth. In each of their opinions, what they perceived is what really happened.

And they’re both hurt at the other’s reactions.

Rosa thinks Joe’s brushing aside her distress and fears of an argument. Joe thinks Rosa’s overreacting and imagining things.

And yet they’re at the same party, at the same time with the same people.

Is there only one reality?

When we’re talking about people’s experiences, is there only one reality? 

Actually we all carry our own reality around with us inside our own heads. We each interpret what happens around us via our past experiences.

And our genetic inheritance also affects how we perceive events.

Every person’s perceptions are unique

These two influences, genetics and past experience, combine to make each person’s perceptions unique.

So remember this when you’re arguing next time. Each person will view events in the light of his or her past experience.

You’re primed to see things one way. Your friend may be primed to see things another way.

So you may or may not interpret what happens in the same way. In these situations sometimes you need to agree to disagree.

6 See things from a different viewpoint

However these disagreements help you see life the way someone else does. You’ll see the same event as someone else interprets it. And it’s important not to judge their viewpoint.

Their perceptions are no more or less “right” than yours, because they’re affected by their past experience and their values.

So it’s useful to know if your own perceptions of present events are being affected by your past experiences.

If you’ve had difficult experiences, you may interpret neutral events more negatively than someone who hasn’t had such a tough time. And most of the time you may not even be aware of how your perceptions are a bit skewed. 

No wonder people are at loggerheads so often. They don’t realise what they’re fighting over is often a matter of perceptions. And perceptions often can’t be proven right or wrong.

7 Skewed perceptions

But there are times when your perceptions may be skewed out of proportion. This is usually when you’re highly emotional; scared, anxious, disgusted, angry, sad or jealous.

This may also be true if your mindset is generally gloomy or critical, due to past experiences that were distressing or difficult. 

Being aware of how the past affects the present may highlight your tendency to assume the past will keep repeating. Once you realise this, you can learn to challenge your unhelpful beliefs and negative self-talk. 

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