Trauma and difficult past experiences can have mental health consequences through no fault of your own. It’s worth grieving the connection.
Having a difficult past plays a major role in many adult mental health struggles. Past experiences like:
- Being a child of alcoholics or heavy substance users,
- Grief and loss,
- Sexual assault,
- Emotional abuse from family or in relationships,
- Having narcissist parents,
- A “troubled” childhood or dysfunctional family
- Neurodivergence, and
- Neglect (tangible or emotional)
…can all have mental health consequences through no fault of your own. These types of challenging experiences (often called “Adverse Childhood Experiences” or ACEs) contribute to mental health struggles like:
- Major Depression
- Self destructive behavior
- Self esteem and confidence issues
- Disordered eating and eating disorders
- Suicidal ideation
- Self harm
- Self isolation
- Personality Disorders
- Obsessive and compulsive symptoms
- Executive dysfunction
- Substance use
When you realize how much of your current struggle may relate to past experiences, you might rightfully feel overcome by grief. All of these symptoms which may severely impact your present–made possible by your past. If only things had been different. If only someone had been there to protect you. If only you had better support, then and now.
All of these feelings are worthy of your attention and mourning.
Talk about the past’s impact on the present
Talk about or write about your grief. Make art about it. Create TikToks about it, or chat about it. Communicating can help you feel less shame about how your past follows you in the present. You don’t need to give others all the delicate details (unless you want to). But a simple “Hm, that was definitely a response to something in the past, not the present,” or “Wow, my family-of-origin issues are really showing!” can help you to actively grieve and even find connection in the process.
The personal responsibility fallacy can block the grieving process
The personal responsibility fallacy is the false assumption that people have meaningful control over their circumstances (and/or responses to their circumstances). When you insist that your current struggles are unrelated to the past, you prevent yourself from grieving the impact of trauma and difficult experiences.
We can’t expect ourselves or others to power through struggles rooted in the past forever. The only way out is to feel our way through–and that may mean grieving how the past impacts our present mental health, no matter how hard we try to feel better.
Have compassion for yourself and others
We can’t account for all the factors at play in a person’s mental health response to a difficult past. It’s rarely the case that someone is “just not trying hard enough” to have better mental health (ourselves, included).
Our responses to others’ mental health struggles can reveal attitudes that apply to both ourselves and others. Do you see any similarities between how you view their struggles and your own? Or, if you’ve made it through a similar experience without struggle, do you understand that other circumstances between you and the other person may differ?
Individual differences in how the past impacts our present mental health
If you or someone you know is struggling to rebound from a difficult past, consider all the factors that might be at play. Try to have compassion for their continued mental health struggle. These factors could include:
- Socioeconomic status,
- Gender and sexuality,
- Perceived “attractiveness,”
- Social support,
- Family support, and
- Plain luck.
All of the above contribute to a person’s emotional resilience, and all are more or less outside an individual’s control.
You can still “have grit” even while grieving a difficult past. Grit is about your attitude and how you approach difficult circumstances. If you have grit, you tend to:
- Reflect on and examine the circumstances of your struggles (instead of stoically powering through)
- Give yourself space to feel painful emotions (instead of ignoring or numbing them out)
- Try to learn from difficult experiences (instead of feeling doomed to suffer)
- Persevere, often in pursuit of a goal or passion
Ask yourself how you can apply these principles while grieving a past that harmed your mental health.
Choose how you want your past to influence your future
Yes, your past has contributed to your current mental health struggles. But what have these struggles shown you about yourself and what’s important to you? Use grief for your past as a motivator toward a better future. This process is sometimes referred to as post-traumatic growth.
Understand that others understand
Even if it feels uncomfortable to talk about in person, turn to the internet to see just how many people are struggling after similar past experiences. Social media has endless perspectives on every mental health struggle and ACE under the sun. Forums have truthful posts to browse, and sites like Supportiv offer live anonymous chats grouped by specific topics and mental health struggles.
It makes perfect sense to grieve a difficult past that contributed to your current mental health. It feels tragic to struggle through no fault of your own, and too often that’s exactly the case for mental health struggles.
However, while you’re not at fault for the state of your mental health, grieving your past is one concrete way you can minimize unwanted effects in the present.