I have something of a passion for raging campfires; the kind that can singe your eyebrows if you get too close. The bigger the better. One thing is true about every one of those fires I’ve made: when the wood is burned up, the ashes will not reignite. Seems like an obvious statement, but I’ve never seen ashes catch fire. In the same way, I see that when past hurts and unfinished business is “burned up” and the energy spent, it no longer “ignites” emotionally again.

As a psychologist in Orange County, when I hear someone say that the past is the past and has no impact on them anymore, I have a failsafe illustration that will convince them otherwise. If I suddenly kicked you in the knee hard and then, one minute later say, “The past is the past and I’m confused about why you’re still hurting and upset with me,” you would think I’m crazy. You’re not done with the physical pain yet, let alone the anger and shock of what I did to you. You get the idea. Without processing and a healing experience, painful past experiences don’t loose their impact any more than positive past experiences.  In fact, all that hurt and pain only festers into bitterness and resentment and often leads to the need for depression therapy. But how can you deal with past hurts?

I often hear people say, “you can’t go back and change the past, so what good is it to think about?” I agree that you can’t go back and change life events, but I do believe that you can “burn up” the remaining energy and emotion from those negative events. So, in some ways, you do change your connection to the past even though the events don’t change. That leaves a person more free in the present and their future to act rather than react to the painful old triggers. Unfortunately, the tendency is to work hard to seal those painful pieces away through positive thinking, self-talk, meditation or a myriad of other ways to try and not think about or feel what you can not forget.

It makes me think of the movie “Backdraft,” where an arsonist was setting fire traps. The smoldering fuel for the fire was set in a closed building deprived of oxygen, just waiting. When someone opened the door, oxygen would rush in and a massive explosion and fire would burst into action. In the same way, unfinished business sits there smoldering until someone says or does something that opens the door and ignites an inferno. Usually, both are shocked at the intensity of the flare up and work hard to close the door again as quickly as possible. But what if, instead, someone were to fan the flames.

This may sound difficult, but imagine what will happen when someone turns toward the past hurts and fans the flames by listening carefully and non-defensively. They make room for the hurts and actually “fanned the flames” by empathizing and helping put the hurt or fear into words. This will usually intensify the emotion for a time, but it also helps “burn up” the hurt that still remains. When it’s done, all that will be left is the “ashes” of the memory, with the emotional energy connected to it all burnt up and gone, never to reignite again.  Without burning up the energy of these past hurts, they like on and smolder underneath, affecting every single moment of your life.  No, that’s not an exaggeration.  Unfinished hurts burn on and are usually at the bottom of it all when I’m doing depression therapy with a client.

It reminds me of my youngest son who was very upset and tearful one day when a toy broke. He was young, with only a few words, so he motioned for me to pick him up and I began putting into words for him what I thought had happened and how he felt about it. That’s when the really big crocodile tears started falling from him. Bingo! I understood him and he had me there to share his pain. After a few minutes of “fanning the flames” by sharing the experience of his sadness, he gave a deep breath and that big double sigh as his body relaxed. He asked to get down and immediately began playing and laughing with tears and snot all over his face. He was done in the past and genuinely happy. The toy was still broken, but he was no longer consumed with the past circumstances.

So if you find yourself bursting into depression and emotional flames over past experiences, or even present ones, fan the flames. If you’re surprised by the intensity of your response to a situation, chances are there is some unfinished business for you to turn toward rather than hide away again. With the help of a friend or an Orange County psychologist, get down to the message or meaning and feel what you are feeling instead of closing it away, only to ignite again later. Make the past actually be the past once and for all.