Aug 192018 0 Responses

Sometimes You Are Your Past

You aren’t defined by your past mistakes. Times have changed. You have grown. Life is different. While your past is part of you, it doesn’t form your ultimate definition. You are not your past.

Except when you are. Sometimes you are your past. Despite time passing and many things changing, your past action or mistake defines you. No matter how many years have passed and how much you think you are different, your greatest shame is your greatest defining element. You are your past.

What’s the difference? Why are there times in which previous mistakes have nothing to do with our present while there are other situations where they fully determine who we are?

The difference is not determined by the mistakes we have made. It’s not the differential between small actions or big ones. It’s not simply the amount of time that has passed since circumstances occurred. The difference between a past event not defining us and it being a fair understanding of who we are is how we have responded since the mistake occurred.

Imagine if you are embarrassed by an action from thirty years ago. No one in your current setting knows what you did. But suddenly it is revealed. Your friends are surprised. Your co-workers are shocked. Those in your community feel as though the action completely contradicts your character. (By the way, your spouse should not be surprised. There should never be a major past incident which could become public which your spouse doesn’t know about. Before the wedding, couples should be transparent about any past circumstances which might influence their future.)

Something is revealed–an arrest, failure, embarrassment, shame, etc. In the moment of revelation, only one question matters. It’s not, “What did you do?” It is “How did you respond?” If you owned the situation, took responsibility, made amends, and learned from the situation in order to make different decisions, your past does not define you. However, if you denied it, ignored it, covered it up, and buried it with the hopes of the facts never being revealed, then your past likely defines your present.

What You Must Do

When it comes to your past (and don’t forget your present will quickly become your past) there are four specific actions you must take so that it does not define you.

1. Own It. You must take personal responsibility for your actions. You can’t defend it. Don’t deny it. Don’t downplay it. Don’t justify it. Own it. Call it wrong. Confess what you have done. Admit you wish you could make a different choice now. You should never own what is not yours–someone else’s actions, thoughts, or attitudes. You should never take on yourself what is not rightly yours. But you must own everything that is yours. Until you own a past action, it owns you.

2. Reveal It. After you own it, you have to reveal it. Not to everyone. As a matter of fact, you should reveal your mistakes to the most limited number of people as possible. Yet you must reveal it to someone. Whatever secret you have never told anyone, owns you. Even if your action didn’t hurt anyone, confessing it to a pastor or counselor is part of the healing process. In order to heal, you must be willing to reveal your past mistakes. (See: Only Tell Your Problems to Two People)

3. Make Amends. Feeling bad about something isn’t enough. You must take specific actions to make things right. At minimum, this often means you apologize to those you hurt or who was negatively affected by your actions. In other situations, you can do more. An amend is an attempt to restore a situation as much as possible. Sometimes you can’t do anything–relationships are severed, negative consequences can’t be taken back, nothing more is possible. Yet in other situations, you can return things to a close sense of how it was before.

4. Learn. While owning something is the greatest determining factor of how much influence your past has over you, learning from it is the most trustworthy proof that it no longer defines you. When you learn from a mistake, you choose differently the next time. Your understanding impacts your actions. Often, learning demands you work with someone who can guide you to explore what you’ve done, why you did it, and how to choose better the next time. True learning is only proven through different actions. Saying you’ve learned but making the same mistakes is proof you haven’t understood your mistakes.

(For a real example of how your past doesn’t have to define you, watch this.)


You don’t have to be your past, but without conscious choices, your past will define you. However, if you take some specific actions, your past will lose all control over you.

Imagine if your greatest shame was revealed. Your neighbors, friends, and co-workers learned something about you that they never knew. If, in that moment, you were able to point to how you owned the mistake, revealed it to those who could help, made all amends possible, and learned from it in such a way that you have consistently made better choices, no one would define you by your past. However, if it was clear you had been denying it, refused to reveal it, never made any amends, and continued to make poor choices, your past would rightly define you. (See: How Do I Forgive Myself?)

Don’t be your past.

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