What does a healthy relationship with our past look like?
On her podcast, Laura Leigh Abby shares how she finally moved past her past. Here's how you can, too.
Trigger Warning: This piece contains a brief account of sexual violence.
When Laura Leigh Abby was a teenager, she thought she was just too much. “There was always this feeling of, ‘I should shut up. I’m too ugly. I’m too loud,’” she tells Mic. Abby describes feeling like she didn’t really make sense in a world that expects young women to be small, soft-spoken, and diminutive. “I was a five-foot-eleven teenage girl. I was not super skinny; I felt that I took up a lot of space in the world. I had this loud voice, this big energy,” Abby says.
To say it’s unfair that young Abby and every other child has to perform the monumental task of self-discovery within the limits of the cis-heteropatrarchy is an understatement. Now Abby is married to a woman and coparenting a family, but at the time, she was exploring her sexuality. Sadly, romantic and sexual exploration is often unsafe terrain for women and Abby is no exception. Please note that the story that follows includes sexual violence.
One night her senior year, Abby went to a party, where she tells me she was sexually assaulted. Abby didn’t know what to do about the assault when it was happening, and she didn’t know what to do about it later, either. Like many people in this situation, she blamed herself. “I know that we were both drunk and this was just as much my fault as it was his,” she wrote in her journal. It sucks to say that Abby’s ownership of responsibility is very much the norm in our victim blaming culture.
Later, though, Abby realized that being violated was not her fault, and that she could help others heal by telling her story. The podcast, Seventeen: Conversations with My Teenage Self, uses Abby’s own intimate thoughts — past and present — to create a dialogue between Abby and her teen self and other teens like her. Across eight episodes, teen influencer Leia Immanuel reads Abby’s senior year journal, while today-Abby provides reflective commentary on its contents — stories that range from harrowing and sad to naively silly and playfully stupid.
“There’s a lot of moments where I want to make it fun and funny and light, and at the same time, if I’m going to be honest and I’m going to tell the truth, then that means the whole truth,” Abby tells Mic. “So that’s putting the stuff out there that’s a little tougher to deal with and some of the stuff that is embarrassing.”
While for Abby it’s sometimes “really mortifying” to consider all the things one doesn’t know as a teen, she still feels fortunate to have emerged from those years fairly well adjusted. Reading through her diary in the run up to the podcast, she was even able to laugh at herself on many occasions. “To know I’m not that same person and have changed enough to kind of shrug my shoulders at some of it and be like, ‘Hey, she made me who I am today,’ [that] feels great,” Abby says.
But Abby has intentionally put in place some practices to help her deal with the emotional struggles that creep into her life from time to time — like anybody else, particularly those people who have a past that involves trauma and other challenging phases. In confronting mental health issues that can arise out of a difficult past, such as depression, it’s beneficial to remain in the present moment. Doing so can disrupt cycles of negative thinking and mitigate trauma responses by helping a person realize that, in the now, they’re not being threatened.
However, the past is always there, lurking. Preserved in amber, it’s easy to revisit the most terrifying moments of our lives, the times we were hurt or hurt others, and have them menacingly inform our behavior and spirit today. “Most people obsess about the past until they don’t, until they figure out it’s not serving [them] well at all,” says Kathryn Smerling, a psychotherapist based in Manhattan who specializes in family counseling. “You have to keep bringing yourself back to the present moment to enjoy the present moment.”
There are things we can do to have a better relationship with our past, though, which can help make for a more secure, calm, and content now. Here are a few suggestions.
Read your old journals
People have a tendency to repeat their pasts until they willingly break cycles of behavior that are perhaps destructive in some ways, Smerling says. To do that, though, they first have to be able to identify those self-sabotaging behaviors.
“One of the things that looking at an old journal can do is help us understand what the patterns are, and what patterns we have to change that we’re still perpetuating now, and what patterns that you just don’t need anymore,” Smerling says. “We all have bad habits and bad patterns that we can certainly discard.”
One behavior we might engage in that does not serve us well is examining our work and finding a way to deem it unacceptable when the rest of the world — i.e. our bosses and other authority figures — is telling us the opposite. If you’ve journaled about that type of self-deprecation in the past, you can review it today and observe that it’s something you might do on a frequent basis, and should be altered.
“You can look at it and say, ‘Wow, I’m being so hard on myself,’” Smerling says. This practice is called “reframing,” and can help treat a host of mental health issues, from anxiety and depression to addiction and even chronic pain.
Start a new journal
Laura Leigh Abby’s devoted an entire podcast to reading her old journals, but she also continues to keep a journal to this day, and says the practice has an outsized impact on her mental health.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of taking five minutes before bed to jot down what I did that day,” Abby says. “It’s just taking that time to reflect.”
She observes the practice helps her “stay sane” and “make sense of whatever’s going on in my life.”
If you want to build a healthy relationship with your past, “a journal is a great way to start,” says Marius Commodore, medical director for Campus Health at Tulane University and medical advisor of the healthcare platform Nurx. “You can say anything you want, in any way you want, bring up any memory you want without judgment,” he adds, “and it allows you to explore that past in a place of safety.”
Again, it’s through that exploration that one might incite change.
Seek a connection to nature
There’s growing evidence that spending time in nature has a range of cognitive benefits and can help people living with depression. But hikes, swims and even trips to the petting zoo — anything where we’re connecting with nature — can facilitate a healthier relationship with our past, too.
“It is another way of interacting with a world beyond oneself,” says Commodore. “Many people who have histories of trauma, or suffer depression or anxiety, spend so much time in their own heads that sometimes they forget there’s a world out there beyond themselves, a world that has multiplicities and types of beauty.”
This activity, therefore, builds a buffer between your present-day self and your past, helping you stay in the moment and engage with other entities besides yourself. Eventually with that distance you can observe your past with more neutrality, and possibly more compassion.
Exercising releases endorphins that, in short, help you just feel better, which is why many healthcare professionals suggest people who live with depression from past trauma, as well as other mental health issues, work out. Commodore says that, like getting out in nature, exercising keeps us in the moment, as we focus on our breathing, our reps or putting one foot in front of the other.
“Exercise is also future-focused,” Commodore says. You can think: “How can I make myself feel better? When I feel better today, in the morning, then I feel better in the afternoon. If I have one good day of feeling better, maybe I can have two or three.”
Pulling yourself out of those states of mind where you’re struggling to cope and exercising instead, he says, “puts a line between the less-helpful habits of the past and the more-helpful habits of the now.” He adds that “it allows a person to feel like they’re on a journey that’s different from the journey they were on in the past.”
On top of journaling, Laura Leigh Abby says she processes her difficult emotional moments through running — and because she recently relocated from New York City to the more rural Hudson Valley in Upstate New York, she does so out in nature.
“I have a favorite run that takes me along the Hudson River and into a quiet trail in the woods. It’s a beautiful place to reconnect with myself,” Abby says. “Sometimes it’s the quiet that helps settle me, other times it’s the feeling of my feet on the earth, but the option to get into nature any time is something that gives me the constant opportunity for an immediate mood booster.”
Go to therapy consistently
When an individual is ready to unpack their past, while also open to changing their behaviors, therapy can be an incredible aid to mental health. Certain psychotherapy approaches examine the patient’s past, particularly traumas, and help them understand their impact.
“Therapy is both a healthy habit [and] a healthy process for one to learn to then attack the problems, both of the present, but also to interrogate how your present reaction to something might have nothing to do with the something itself,” Commodore says. Instead, the response could be bubbling “because of issues you haven’t dealt with before.”
There are very real boundaries between many people and therapy sessions, unfortunately. However, Commodore is quick to point out that they are being broken down, namely with the emergence of digital healthcare platforms and online therapy services.
“Get help,” says Smerling. “It takes time and … remember that life is a process. You want a change, but all of a sudden you don’t wake up one day and say, ‘Wow, I’m not going to obsess about the past anymore. Now, I’m going to be less critical.’ It’s a gradual change.”
“It’s great to see that person for who she was and see that she learned from her mistakes,” says today-Abby of 17-year-old Abby. “I wish I could tell every teenage girl: ‘You’re enough, you’re perfect, don’t do anything you don’t want to do.’ But it’s one of those things you have to learn yourself along the way.”