Events in my past are the cause of my problems - and they continue to influence my feelings and behaviours now.

‘People feel disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of them.’ Ancient words, from a first-century philosopher named Epictetus — but they are just as true now.

Events and circumstances don’t cause your reactions — they result from what you tell yourself about the things that happen. Put simply, thoughts cause feelings and behaviours — or, more precisely, events and circumstances serve to trigger thoughts, which then create reactions. These processes are intertwined.

Look around. It is obvious that different people react differently to the same thing. The circumstance itself doesn’t cause the variation — so what does?

‘Our past,’ you might say. ‘Surely it’s all to do with the way we were brought up, things that happened to us as children, how other people treated us.’ Many people believe that past events, especially those of childhood, cause the way we feel and behave in the present.

Let us assume for the moment you are right (even though we know that people with similar backgrounds often handle life differently as adults). How is it, then, that things which happened in the past (and are thus no longer present) can influence our reactions now?

‘Well,’ you respond, ‘I guess our past experiences leave us with certain ways of looking at life that we keep and carry round with us in the present.’

Now we are getting there. The past is significant — but only in so far as it leaves us with our current attitudes and beliefs. External events — whether in the past, present or future — cannot influence the way you feel or behave until you become aware of and begin to think about them.

The past is just that — the past. It has gone. What happened yesterday, last year or 30 years ago is no longer present. Past experiences helped form your belief system, but it is the beliefs you hold now (wherever they came from) which cause your reactions in the present. It is your choice to maintain old beliefs or to change them, and while you cannot alter the past, you can change what you tell yourself about it.

Other helpful resources

Links within this programme

Further reading

  • Ellis, Albert & Harper, Robert A., A New Guide to Rational Living, Wilshire Book Company, Hollywood, 1975. 


Overcoming the influence of the past

Change what you tell yourself about your past so that can begin to live in the present. Here is a new belief to help you:

'The past can’t influence me now. My current beliefs cause my reactions. I may have learned these beliefs in the past, but I can choose to analyse and change them in the present.'