Building on the Past

Almost no one I talk to had a happy childhood. We mourn our past as the present trickles by. We want to live it over, do it better, get the mom or dad we really needed.

We can't re-write the past.

What we are doing, of course, is using our adult selves to direct what we should have had as kids. What would happen if you asked yourself, “What would I be today if I had the childhood I so badly needed?” Maybe you did have the childhood you needed then to become the person you are today.  You are you because of your past. You learned lessons you could not have learned had you had that ideal childhood. What did you learn? Maybe it was patience, self-discipline, discernment, independence, self-reliance, or determination. Maybe you learned how to survive. Not a bad skill.

When we treat our past like a swamp, we stoke it until it takes over our present, eating at us, whining at us to blame everyone who didn’t reach out. No doubt they should have, but they didn’t. And tomorrow, they still didn’t. And meanwhile, you are missing out on today’s life.

As we go through the days, mourning our past, we rip each day off the calendar and trample it beneath our feet. The calendar hanging on the wall gets thinner and thinner, as our days get fewer. We still grind each day beneath our feet, treading it into the past that does not change.

What if we handled that calendar page differently? What if we wrote on it–across the big numbers, around the margins, filling it with what we accomplished, how we moved forward, how we celebrate our skills? Then take the calendar page and tuck it back into the end of the calendar.

As the days run on, instead of the proof of loss under your feet, you have a record of what you have created, what you have made. The calender is a bit wobbly with all those loose pages, but it stays full and stuffed with facts, growth, with reminders of how far we have come.

We cannot change the past, but we can change how we see it. We can use it as rich ground to grow our future. Our lives can be the journals that track our steady movement ahead. To become the people we always wanted to be.

Quinn McDonald is a journaler of  life. She did not have a happy childhood, but she is having a hell of a time now. She’s the author of Raw Art Journaling, Making Meaning, Making Art.

Feeding Your Inner Critic

You’ve heard the story of the two wolves–the one you feed is the one that thrives within you. The inner critic (I often call it the gremlin) works the same way. The diet for the gremlin is tied to a timeline that starts in childhood.

“My parents never encouraged me,” we sigh, feeding the gremlin the “you can’t

You might have been trapped once. . .

be enough because you weren’t nurtured” food.

“At home, the boys got all the attention,” we complain, giving the gremlin the sweet accusation that we aren’t worth the effort of love, attention, or praise.

“No one ever loved me enough,” we say, giving the gremlin a meaty bone of self-doubt to chew on for years.

The saddest (and funniest) childhood comment I’ve heard as a coach came from the client who said, “My parents gave me everything. They encouraged me and praised me. So I never learned how to deal with disappointment. I don’t have the ability to be self-critical.”

Poor childhood. It can’t win. If we’re treated badly, it ruined our life. If we were treated well, that’s wrong, too.

You can dance, even if you are dancing in the mud.

Yes, I take seriously the grim stories of childhood I hear–stories of abuse, abandonment, loss. No one can take any of those stories lightly. They do cause damage. The sign of growth, the sign of change, the sign of reinvention is the willingness to admit that we can’t go back and change the past. It happened. Blessedly, it is also over, and in the past. The next step is yours to make and live.

You can hold onto that pain from the past, you can brandish it like an accusatory weapon, making it the magic wand that transforms your every tomorrow into the same sad yesterday. “Well, of course I keep choosing the wrong partner. . .my parents fought all the time, and I took that as my pattern.” “I can’t commit because my Dad cheated on my Mom; I don’t want to repeat that.”

Maybe it’s time to put down the past. Hugging the hurt to you, shaping the pain into your heart and making it beat in time to the sad rhythm of  the past will not repair either the past or your heart.  Waiting for your parents to come back and help you re-live your childhood and create a different outcome–well, it’s not going to happen.

Reliving your past over and over creates too much spinning and not enough weaving. The harder work is to take your present day skills, your present day image of what you want for yourself and building your own future. Give up the idea of making someone else wrong for your present by blaming it on the past. It’s so vastly overrated. Instead, be bold. Be risky. Be the person you wish you were and forge yourself into the person you want to be. It is hard to step away from the past. It is also wonderful to step away from the past. The past and the future are the two wolves within you. The one you feed is the one that stays.

–Quinn McDonald is a life and creativity coach who did not have an ideal childhood either. But she has the strong belief that if she had had adoring parents who lavished attention on her, she would never have grown a backbone and a colorful soul.

What do I do with my journal?

Are you afraid that someone will find out your journal secrets? That when you die your life will be there for all to see? If this is keeping you from writing in a journal, could you reconsider? There are steps you can take to protect your privacy, and some things to think about before you cut off your connection to the past.

If you feel strongly that your privacy not be invaded, you can rent a safe deposit box at a bank. Put your completed journals in this safe deposit box and give the key to a trusted friend.

open journalJulia Cameron, the author of “The Artist’s Way,” and the proponent of writing three pages of whatever you are thinking every single morning was asked at a book signing if she keeps her journals. She said she did, they fill a storage locker. She has an agreement with her daughter, her executor, that she be cremated. “But first, burn the books. Then burn me!” Cameron said.

Before you choose to keep your life such a secret, let me encourage you to let go. Once you are dead your past is not going to haunt you. And it might help others. My mother’s life was a mystery to me. I was born late in her life and only knew her as angry and manipulative. Sure, she had bright moments, but they were short and quickly dispensed with.

After her death, I found a packet of love letters she and my father had exchanged. So strong was her hold over me, even from the grave, that I seriously considered destroying the letters, unopened. When I read through them, another woman emerged. One I had never known. A young woman, the woman who was the mother to my brothers. She seemed eager to live her life. I never found out what had shut her down, although she had many reasons.

Without those letters, I would have never had a chance to see this other person. This person with hope and humor. This woman who suddenly had more in common with me than I ever believed. It was a generous gift to discover.  I’m sure she would have hated my prying into her past, but now that I know, it is also easier for me to be easier on her.

Before you lock up your past, think about the help you might be. That event you are ashamed of might help someone else, might change their mind, might leave a word of encouragement. Once you are gone, your life in this world is complete. Leave some clues for the next generation. You might create a picture of yourselves for people who are not even born. Give them a view into your life, and into the status of life in a time period they never knew.

–Quinn McDonald is a certified creativity coach who teaches journal writing. See her work at You can also read about Raw Art Journaling for journal writers who can’t draw.