Have you ever observed a friend who reacted in a certain way and it was apparent his reaction had to do with something from his past? Maybe your friend was unable to make a commitment and you know it’s because of past relationship where he was burned. Or perhaps you knew someone who was afraid to try something new because last time she did so it turned out horrible. In both cases the past is impacting the present. Are we ever really past the past? Closer to home; are you ever really past your past?
Last week I wrote about the book Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do by John Bargh, PhD. It was such an interesting book that I’m reading through it again. The first section, chapters 1-4, have to do with our past and how it shapes who we are. The past includes our evolutionary past as a species, our personal history, the culture we grow up in and recent events. As we take a quick look at each, remember that virtually all of this impact takes place at the subconscious level.
Whether or not it’s apparent to you, your ancestors helped shape who you are. I’m not talking about your great, great, great grandparents. I’m referring to the human race over the course of history.
Much of what we do comes from our genetic make-up. The genes that survived over the millennia are passed on from one generation to the next are the ones that impact your thinking which drives much of your behavior.
Human genes have two main priorities – help us survive another day and procreate. Both priorities ensure the human species will continue on. Those inherited genes impact things like who you’re attracted to, who you’re afraid of, your willingness to follow certain leaders and the groups you’re a part of. Your tendencies for each of those choices, along with many other choices, have been heavily influenced by your ancestors from long, long ago.
Your personal experiences, whether or not you can recall them, are another huge determinant of how you think and behave. It’s a mistake to believe only the big or traumatic events of life shaped you. How much do you recall from your first few years of life? Probably nothing but they’re called “the formative years” for a reason.
It’s during your first few years of life you begin to learn about trust and relationships. How you were parented during that time shows up in your ability to build trusting, intimate relationships. How outgoing you are, confidence and many other traits come in large part from your experiences in early childhood.
It was eye opening to learn how impacting culture is without our awareness. For example, there is a societal perception that Asian people are good at math. There’s also a stereotype that girls are not as good as boys when it comes to math and science.
In studies where Asian women were asked to list their ethnicity, but not gender, they did better on math tests than Asian women who were not asked to list their gender or ethnicity. When Asian women were asked to list their sex, but not ethnicity, they did worse compared to the control group of Asian women who listed neither. It’s theorized the results in both cases are a result of the cultural norms that women subconsciously carry with them.
Lest you think the study of Asian women was a fluke, studies show African Americans do worse on certain standardized tests when they list their ethnicity as compared to those who are not asked to do so. How culture views us impacts how we view ourselves to a large degree.
You don’t have to dig into evolution, your family upbringing or culture to see how the past can impact you. Sometimes looking back a few minutes or hours is all you need to do.
Have you ever had a stressful commute home where other drivers set you off? If so, did you notice the impact on your mood and emotions afterwards? The “hangover” from events like that can cause you to be short with others where you’d normally exhibit patience. You may not notice you’re acting impatiently until someone points out the obvious.
In a very real sense the past is never past because so much of the past affects who you are in the present moment. The more you understand how the past may affect you the better positioned you’ll be to make course corrections for yourself and others.
Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. His Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning course, Persuasive Selling, has been viewed by more than 50,000 people! His latest course, Persuasive Coaching, just went live. Have you watched them yet? If not, click on either course name to see what you’ve been missing.