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‘There’s too much history’ — how to rewrite the past, or not

“I don’t think so, there’s too much history.” This statement is the graveyard where so much potential has been laid to rest. A table tennis player hears this constantly replaying in his mind because they have never beaten an opponent. They even know that they are better than the opponent, yet… Think of another situation: You want to do something despite making mistakes while attempting something similar in the past. The familiar voice of suppression comes back. Think of when you have a fight with someone, and one of you is unable to ‘let it go’. It’s difficult because you get caught up in ‘his-story’ or ‘her-story’. In all these and so many more cases, a familiar commentary comes to mind: “They’ve lost it because they have been unable to get their history out of their head.”

The past when it comes to his/her-story

Who we are is a direct result of the constellation of choices we have made

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While it is rather tempting to believe that we individuals decide to be the way we are at any given point of time, it is not so. Who we are is a direct result of the constellation of choices we have made. Who we are is a direct result of the circumstances we have found ourselves in, and what we have done about those. Think of those fairy tales we were told growing up. Goldilocks and how she made the choice about which bed is right for her. Or Karna when deciding that his friendship to Duryodhana was more important than changing sides to one of his brothers by blood. Or when a captain decides to move the long-on fielder a bit wider because from experience because the batter at the crease likes to hit wide. 

His-story or her-story is really important to understand here. We are unique beings. What makes us unique is how we construct the narratives of our ‘self’. So what is this ‘self’? In psychology, the ‘self’ is the cognitive (thoughts of), affective (emotions around), and conative (wish or effort for) of how we determine the subjective experience. This is why two people in the exact same situation are likely to be affected differently by it. It is why the two people will likely react differently to the situation. It is also likely that they will remember it differently. Through the experiences of situations we find ourselves in, we constantly create narratives. Within this narrative, we construct our stories of self. 

How does this work? Imagine that you are a director of a movie, and you are constantly creating your unique version of reality. You are taking situational experience and making it ‘yours’. Let’s demonstrate with an example. We return to our table tennis player. The opponent he faces is the same level as him. He knows he has won more championships. But in his mind our player remembers a period of six years during their U-19 days when he could not figure out how to beat him. Every time they face off, that narrative replays in his head, and he cannot overcome that. He tries to solve the problem, but fails. Why? Because ‘his-story’ fundamentally has a narrative line reminding him that ‘historically I have never been able to beat him’. This then leads to lower beliefs of change and inevitably overshadows the possibility of an alternate future outcome. 

In their mind, a player might remember the period from the past when they could not beat an opponent despite knowing they are currently as good as the opponent

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All this seems eerily familiar, doesn’t it? It is after all the most common cause of fear and termination of hope. It is why people are resistant to change. It is why people struggle to take a leap of faith. It is why when it comes to changing something in life without knowing if it will work or not, people seek solace in what has already happened in their own narrative before that point. Most people just meander on in that suspended animation where we swing like a pendulum between ‘I am afraid everything will stay the same’ and ‘I fear that everything will change’. Chances are: things will change. Like most things, it will have some good effects and some bad. If we do it well, it might even have a pinch of great

Forget the narratives? Or rewrite them?

Look at narratives that we are getting dragged towards and the ones we are running away from

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I have wrestled with this question myself — so have hundreds of psychologists, philosophers and ordinary people. All things point to the fact that we cannot rewrite our past experience. Some would go so far as to say that you cannot change your narrative either. So should we forget them? Unfortunately even if we do, they do tend to bubble away underneath. Like one of the sub-themes in an Imtiaz Ali film. The best way is to look at narratives that we are getting dragged towards and the ones we are running away from. It is difficult. Very difficult. I am happy to disclose I have failed several times trying it myself. I always go back to Kierkegaard’s quote: “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” So perhaps, instead of forgetting or rewriting narratives of his/her-story, maybe the most important thing is to be brave enough to acknowledge them. Once that’s done, we can see where they lead us. 

Dr Sahen Gupta is a Kolkata-born, India- and UK-based psychologist who divides his time between mental health support and high-performance coaching. As the founder of Discovery Sport & Performance Lab, he works not only with Olympians and other top-level sportspersons, but also with CEOs and other professionals striving for excellence. Dr Gupta’s mission is to simplify complexities of the mind into actionable and simple ‘doables’ that allow individuals to be mentally fit.

Dr Sahen Guptais a Kolkata-born, India- and UK-based psychologist who divides his time between mental health support and high-performance coaching. As the founder of Discovery Sport & Performance Lab, he works not only with Olympians and other top-level sportspersons, but also with CEOs and other professionals striving for excellence. Dr Gupta’s mission is to simplify complexities of the mind into actionable and simple ‘doables’ that allow individuals to be mentally fit.

Last updated on 03.04.24, 08:46 PM



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