Your Past Doesn’t Define You. It Helps Shape You

Everyone has a past. We all know this.

Some pasts are filled with darkness: Sexual abuse. Emotional abuse. Accidents. Fear

Some pasts are filled with light: Great families. A happy childhood. Adventures lived again and again.

And most are filled with a mixture of the light and darkness.

Regardless of how much light or darkness we have in our pasts, we can’t allow our pasts to define us.

Our pasts tend to leave a mark on us. Our opinions are typically formed on the basis of what we’ve experienced.

We see our worth through lenses tinted by our past.

“Who we are in the present includes who we were in the past.”
Mister Fred Rogers

Your Past Doesn’t Define You

We see so many people dogged by their past. They live in their failures or success.

Think about the jock from high school who’s still out partying and trying to live the life of the typical all-star athlete. Only problem is he’s no longer 18 and in top physical shape.

No, in reality he’s the 40 year old who’s got a beer belly and health problems. He’s an alcoholic who cannot stop drinking. It’s a sad sight.

Or there’s the beauty pageant mom who never won the crown. Now she’s parading her children around wanting them to be the next Honey Boo Boo.

Unfortunately, these people have let their past define them. They’re still trying to live the life they lived years ago.

The truth is, we don’t have to let the past define us. We can move on from our past into something better.

The Past Does Shape You

In the examples above, you see how people have let their past define them, even as they grow further and further away from their heyday. The good news is we are shaped by our past but we’re not defined by it or bound to it. We can move past the troubles of the past and into something far greater.

Let’s look at a few people you may know who were shaped but not defined by their past.

Abraham Lincoln: Good old Abe seen many failures and losses during his life. He had a business failure. He lost his fiance. He even had a nervous breakdown. And President Lincoln was defeated a dozen times when he ran for office.

Many would look at this and say there was no way he could move onto success. But he did. He was elected president and helped set in motion the freedom of the American slave.

Nick Vujicic: Nick was born without limbs. He has no arms and no legs. He could have let this disability define his life.

Instead, Nick Vujicic used his disabilities to shape his future. He took the steps to educate himself and he know speaks to large crowds on living a full life.

Ben Carson: Ben was born into poverty and raised by a single mother. He struggled throughout school and had a furious temper. There were few people who expected he would amount to much.

But his mother wouldn’t give up on him. Ben’s mother made him read two books a week and write a book report on each. She wouldn’t let Ben be another statistic.

Eventually Ben went on to graduate with honors from Southwestern High School, attended and graduated from Yale, and got his M.D. from the University of Michigan.

Abraham Lincoln, Nick Vujicic, and Ben Carson all had rough pasts. They could have let it define them. Thankfully it didn’t.

Rather than define, their pasts helped mold and shape them into better men. They were able to overcome their adversities and rise to the occasion.

Question: How is your past shaping, not defining, you? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Love, love, LOVE this post. Outstanding!

    Living it forward is all about intentionally and proactively using our past to positively shape our future. The key is to focus on how we RESPOND to past events, not so much on the events themselves. It’s our response, not the event, that determines the outcome. e+R=o!

    • Thanks Kent. It’s always great to hear from you and your thoughts.

      If someone is struggling with responding positively to negative events, what’s one thing you’d recommend to them?

      • Ask the question…how can this negative event make me better instead of bitter.

        • Fantastic question to ask to turn the bad into better.

  • rcsinclair952

    I’ll go one step further.. “It is the sick oyster that produces the pearl.” It is the failures of our past that shapes our future successes. That is if we know to embrace the lessons and move on.

    • Bob, that’s a great expansion of the idea. Our past experiences, even the bad ones, can produce beautiful things.

  • Kingsley

    Great and timely post there… Joe!

    We are who we are today because of our past but we can learn from our past experiences and go ahead to become who we want to be. The mistakes of the past can be stepping stones into greater heights of successes in the future. It all depends on our attitude. Attitude is everything!

    Decision determines destiny!

  • I love these examples, Joe. What I love even more than these, though, are those anonymous stories we know exist. The sexually abused child who grows up to be a spectacular foster parent. The former meth cook who turns it around and helps others escape. I love that you point out that whether our past is full of happy times or harrowing trials it is meant to inform our present and fuel our futures.

    • Justin, there are plenty of those stories. And thank God for them. It’s just great knowing that there are people who have overcome their difficult circumstances to succeed.

  • Kingsley Izuka Uchunor

    Great and timely post there… Joe!

    We are who we are today because of our past but we can learn from our
    past experiences and go ahead to become who we want to be. The mistakes
    of the past can be stepping stones into greater heights of successes in
    the future. It all depends on our attitude. Attitude is everything!

    Decision determines destiny!

    • Thanks for the thoughts Kingsley. Everything in our past can be used for future good. Have you found that to be true?

      • Kingsley Izuka Uchunor

        Yes Joe, in my opinion, I don’t think there’s any thing like mistakes. Something done wrongly becomes a mistakes when repeated. In other words there is a good side to every experience that we have.
        Experience is a good teacher but an experienced person is a better teacher. Hence, when you go through an experience it is for you to learn from it and get better.

      • Kingsley Izuka Uchunor

        Yes Joe, in my opinion, I don’t think there’s any thing like mistakes. Something done wrongly becomes a mistakes ONLY when repeated. In other words there is a good side to every experience that we have.
        Experience is a good teacher but an experienced person is a better teacher. Hence, when you go through an experience it is for you to learn from it and get better.

  • Your title… that is so true, Joe. It is just a fact of life… after someone has faced a rocky childhood or deep challenging experience and has been able to overcome… it makes a pretty serious difference in that person. It seems like the past actually defines us in the beauty for ashes we can experience when God touches us and heals us and sets us entirely free. Beyond the ‘cope mode’ of modern psychology. Totally healed by His power. Amen.

    It’s beautiful to notice the sweetness that comes. The life and virtue that exudes from them. I just wrote about the fear and depression I suffered in my own life… I am changed for the better because of it.

    Because ALL things work together for good to them that love God. God doesn’t waste any bad (perceived as bad to us) experience. He squeezes the juice right out and others can drink and be satisfied and filled.

    Thanks so much for writing, Joe. You’re making a difference.

    • I’m so glad you shared your story Arlen. It’s powerful.

  • The title caught my eye, and the content kept me reading.

    I used to live in the past, feeling sorry for myself for the abuse I suffered.

    Today, I have a blog, and I have come to realize that I have many stories to tell. I’m even working on a book!

    GREAT post, Joe. This is something EVERYONE can relate to!

    • You’re doing amazing Lorraine. You could have been one of the examples in this blog post! Can’t wait to see where you end up.

      • You and me both! LOL

        Hopefully I will be a famous author! If not, maybe a non-famous author! 🙂

        • It’s possible Lorraine. Keep at it.

          • I’m trying. I’m hoping to put out an ebook one of these days… I will keep you in the loop!

            • Look forward to it Lorraine. What are you hoping to write the eBook about?

              • Actually, I have five short stories that I’d like to make into an ebook, just to gain the experience of doing one. After that, I’m not sure… They can be different lengths, so I might publish a series. I also want to publish a book about my life, the things I have faced and the adversity I have overcome. Right now, things are up in the air, but I hope to make some decisions soon.

                • Awesome. What’s holding you back from getting those five short stories out there? Anything I can do to help you get them into the Kindle or iBooks stores?

                  • Honestly, I didn’t have Word until last week. I also am not sure where and how to publish them. I also need a cover designed. Not sure how to do it all myself, but if you’d like to help me out with some promotion of it when it’s done, I’d appreciate that! Maybe I should write a book on leadership, together with you…. Wanna co-write a book? We can get rich together!

  • Hi Joseph,

    Like Lorraine said, the title caught my eye, and the content kept me here. I can also echo everything else she said.

    Great post!

    • Thanks for the encouragement Rick. Keep moving forward and don’t let the past hold you back. There’s great things in store for you.

  • This type of encouragement never gets old. Thanks for pitting this together.

  • There part of my past that has given me more compassion for people dealing with similar challenges. I know that’s cryptic, but I get what you’re saying in this post.

    • Even cryptic, I think I get what you mean. Our past experiences give us grace and compassion for those we may face later in life.

    • DanKnight

      Jon, That’s only “cryptic” for those who have not embraced their past as shaper rather than definer.

      “Comfort those with the comfort with which you have been comforted” is a great little verse from the Bible (not sure where you’re at religiously and the cool thing is the truth of that verse applies even without the rest of the bible).

      It also sums up the essence of your comment and Joe’s post. We can only share with others what we’ve ourselves have received.

      • I’m a Christ-follower who believes the Bible is God’s inspired word for us. Thanks for the feedback, Dan.

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  • Wonderful post, Joe!

    I’m better equipped to help people go through the different seasons of life because of the often dark times of my younger life. The story we have can help and nourish the people around us.

    • So true Dan. When we’re able to show others they’re not alone, they’re more likely to be influenced by us.

  • Penny McDaniel

    My past allows me to use it as a gift to help others. I’ve had wonderful things happen and I’ve had some tragic things happen, but I certainly don’t let those things define. They have strengthened me, and when I see someone going through the same, I know it’s a cue from the Universe to help that person. Great post!
    (dropping in from UBC)

    • Penny, that’s fantastic that you realize your past has strengthened you for where you’re at now. Keep it up.

  • I’ve been through some very tough times but I wouldn’t trade any of them…even though many of those experiences were very hurtful…because together, they have formed me into the person I am today.

    • LaRae, that’s fantastic that you realize your past pains shouldn’t be removed. We would all be very different people if we could do that.

  • Jesse Lyn Stoner

    Great post, Joe. I love your title. There’s a big difference between shaping and defining, and it has to do with personal power. Thanks for making this distinction. What I’ve discovered over the years is that the past doesn’t have to mean what it meant. In other words, the meaning we assign to events can be reshaped to empower us. I think your post helps do that.

    • I was hoping to hook some people with the title. (-:

      Jesse, that’s an amazing way to word what the past means and does. Thanks for sharing that.

      • Jesse Lyn Stoner

        When I start to feel reactive, I often ask myself, “Does this really mean what you think it does?” And” What would happen if you assume a different intention?” Asking myself these questions breaks a pattern making assumptions about people’s intentions based on my past experiences (which recreates a self-fulling cycle), diffuses my reactivity, and opens the possibility for the present to not be dictated by my past

  • Joseph. Thank you for this. You have no idea what a ballast it was this morning.

    • Paul, I’m glad it was a help to you this morning.

      • Dale… 🙂

        • I’m sorry Dale! I’m not sure how I called you Paul. Please don’t hold it against me (-:

          • I won’t man. Did you reply from a Smartphone? Those things can be really DUMB! Its funny because people have told me that I have the temperament of The Apostle Paul, or Martin Luther.

            • Thanks Dale (See, I got it right this time!). I don’t think it was on a smart phone but it could have been. Or I could have just woken up/been extremely tired.

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  • Great post. I officiated basketball for 16 years and the thing that use to upset me the most was to see a parent trying to live their childhood through their children. I saw parents pushed their children too much because they could not let go of their past. I remember calling one game and the coach of one of the teams was drilling his son all game long. Fussing and hollering at him all game. Towards the end of the game the child finally had enough and told his father to shut up. I laughed because he deserved it.

    • That’s always a sad and frustrating thing to see Bernard. We’ve got to be willing to put our past aside, especially when it comes to children, and let them be themselves.

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  • civilian

    Experiences define a Man: A person is what he is because of the experiences he has gone through. You change the experience the man changes
    We can say our past does not define but shapes us. But experiences shape us only we have to back in time sufficiently to establish that fact. How much back in time is like the law of fractions. A fraction of a fraction always exists. If we use the combined experiences of our past and also that which is coded in our DNA we are a unique set of experiences and our personalities are defined by the experiences we have gone through.

    Our DNA is unique and has the experiences of our parents and grandparents embedded in it. Epigenetic tags remain in place as genetic information passes from generation to generation, a process called epigenetic inheritance.

    Knowledge can change our experience and how we respond to a situation. But again this knowledge is the result of our predisposition to acquire knowledge, which is again shaped by experiences we had.

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  • Short and strong, Joe. Thanks for this. Powerful headline – and what me and my circle need to remember, constantly. Reminds me of Gladwell’s David and Goliath, and the stories of so many “underdogs” whose pasts forged their futures.

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  • RcMaFitness

    Let’s see … how’s my past shaping me? I tend to look & rely on the bright side of my past. Bad memories/moments/events come & go, but I can’t allow (can’t afford) to give any of them the power to paralyze me or embitter me. Thus it’s true that it’s quite beneficial to look at the bright side of things rather than looking at the ugly one. Life is like a strong bull that must be taken by the horns. My words may sound somewhat simplistic, but I do believe in the power of good attitude & smart choices to overcome adversity. Thanks Joe for reminding us about what really defines us!

  • dave

    Hey that really did help me thanks for that

    • Dave! So glad this helped you. If you know of anyone else it may help, please pass it on.

  • Elijah

    great post!!

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