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How Christians can Deal with a Dysfunctional Past

Carola is a Christian writer and author of several books. She writes about Christian living, relationships, and other related topics.

I was as puzzled when I saw a pile of luggage and a six-foot cross on the stage of my church’s lower auditorium. When a special speaker explained the props to the audience, their meaning became clear. We all have suitcases we carry around in life.

Every time we get hurt, we add a brick to them. Some of the emotional baggage from our dysfunctional past can be heavy – physical or emotional abuse, parents with addictions, bullying, and rejection, to name a few. For me, I wondered: what can I do about my own pile of suitcases?

Emotional abused. Physically battered. Bullied. Ashamed. Humiliated. These words defined who I was when I was growing up. I believed that I was an inferior being who did not deserve the same love and respect as other people. I saw seemingly happy families and felt like an alien from outer space.

When I became a Christian in my late teens, however, it soon became clear that God did not see me that way. I needed to make some changes in my thinking. I have identified several ways that keep us stuck carrying emotional baggage.

How a Dysfunctional Past Can Harm Us

Some common effects of a dysfunctional past:

  • Low-self esteem
  • An inferiority complex
  • A lack of self-confidence
  • Fear, general and specific, such as a fear of authority figures
  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • compulsive behavior disorders
  • bouts of depression and hopelessness, suicidal thoughts
  • suppressed anger and resentment
  • guilt and shame
  • the pain of rejection

Ineffective Ways We Deal with Our Dysfunctional Past

Denial and Damaging Coping Behaviors

When emotional pain surfaces, we can choose to face it, deny it, stuff it, or control it through perfectionism or obsessive-compulsive behaviors. It is hard to admit that people, especially those who were supposed to love and protect us, mistreated and harmed us. The only response that leads to emotional healing is to face our hurts.

We may have hidden our pain for years, fearing that the pain will be too overwhelming for us to bear. It is true that we will feel emotional anguish for a while, but this state is only temporary. Emotional healing is just around the corner (Psalm 146-7-8).

The Illusion of Control

As we grow into adulthood, we try to manage our emotional baggage. Sometimes we mistake management for control. Some of our techniques give us the illusion of control but can be very damaging to the people around us and us.

For example, a woman who grew up with parental criticism insists on keeping an immaculate house. As long as things are clean, she is OK. If not, she feels as if she has lost control. All hell breaks loose, especially for her poor kids. She rants and raves at them if there are imperfections in their never-ending chores. She neglects them during never-ending cleaning.

Others delude themselves into thinking they can manage their emotions by stuffing them deep down. Some people bury themselves in work or projects. The problem is that we are not really in control.

Allowing our Past to Define Who We Are

We see ourselves as victims rather than survivors. The apostle Paul tells us to leave our past behind and press forward. Self-pity keeps us stuck in the past. We wallow in the mire of past hurts and humiliations and pile them up, brick by brick. When we focus on the wrongs done to us in the past, we feel angry, resentful, and stew in bitterness and unforgiveness.

Blaming Ourselves Instead of the Perpetrators

When we experience dysfunction in early life, we tend to blame ourselves for things that are not our fault. For example, the people whose opinions I valued when I was growing up told me I was ugly and stupid. I blamed myself for their hurtful comments. I believed that I was an inferior being who didn't deserve other people's love and respect. My lack of self-worth caused me to fail at work and in relationships.

Steps to Healing from Our Past

Prayer

We need God’s help to deal with the damage done by our dysfunctional past. He promises us healing and wholeness when we turn to Him (Psalm 147:3). We can ask God for several things to help us overcome our past such as:

  • The courage to face our emotional baggage
  • Awareness of hurts and the triggers that cause them to surface
  • The strength to stop avoidance tactics such as drug and alcohol abuse or obsessive-compulsive behaviors
  • Having hope for the future and faith that life can get better
  • The healing of damaging emotions such as low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, anger, and fear

We can look at the people who hurt us and ask ourselves:

  • How did they hurt us? (e.g., abuse, neglect, rejection)
  • What emotional and/or physical damage did they cause in our lives?
  • Was the situation out of our control?
  • What was our part in the hurt, if any?
  • How does what they did impact my life today? (e.g., poor self-image, emotional problems)

Recognize The Damage

First, we need to face and admit how the people in our past have hurt us. We cannot take steps to overcome our dysfunctional past if we deny the harm that was done and refuse to face it.

Instead, it is time to look at the bricks in the suitcase and figure out where they came from. Sometimes, a certain environment is part of our dysfunctional background, such as growing up in poverty or a rough neighborhood. People are often the source of our pain.

Extend Mercy and Forgiveness

In the book Forgiving Our Parents, Forgiving Ourselves, author Dr. David Stoop says: "The pain and heartache you may have suffered in your family may tempt you to put your family behind you once and for all. But "leaving home" is not that easy --- and may not be the healthiest course of action, anyway."

We can’t move on until we forgive those who hurt us. We need to let go of our resentment, pain, and desire for revenge. These emotions will destroy us if we continue to let them fester.

Seek Support

We need other people to support and pray for us on our healing journey (James 5:16). True friends will spot feelings and behaviors that we might miss. Their words can be like a two-edged sword, piercing our inner parts (Proverbs 12:18), but we need to remember to old adage, “no pain, no gain.” Pastors, psychiatric professionals, and programs such as Celebrate Recovery can also help us work through our issues.

Recognize That Healing Is A Process

We can put our emotional baggage at the foot of the cross and ask God to take care of it. Jesus died so that we could heal our wounds, including the harmful effects of our dysfunctional past (Isaiah 53:5). We need to leave our past behind us and move forward (Isaiah 43:18-19).

Sometimes, we take back a suitcase or two and may not even realize it. Healing is a process that takes time. Sometimes we stumble and fall back into our old ways, but that is OK. If we are genuinely trying, God promises to rescue us and renew our minds.

Redefining Ourselves as Children of God

Workbooks such as Making Peace with Your Past by Tim Sledge can help us deal with our issues. With time, we realize that the negative messages we received in childhoods were not true. They no longer define who we are. We are smart and beautiful children of God. He loves us, flaws and all, and builds us up.

As time goes on, we will see exciting signs of recovery and progress. A brand new life is available to us if we reach for it and travel down the road toward God's healing (2 Corinthians 5:17).

References:

Holy Bible, New International Version
Celebrate Recovery Step Studies, Books 1 - 4

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