What I Tell Myself About the Past


You guys continue to blow me away, as over $2,150 has been raised for the student athletes at Rhodes Hall High School in Hanover, Jamaica since this campaign began over a month ago! We are hoping to raise additional funds to purchase track spikes and shoes for competition and are closing in on $2,500! Click here to donate now, or read more about the kids and their incredible stories here. I am accepting new and gently used running apparel of all genders and sizes at: Danielle Cemprola, PO Box 26101, Greenville, SC 29616 until February 15, 2016! Don’t hesitate to email me at thetrexrunner(at)gmail.com!

They say wisdom comes from the most unexpected places, but I don’t think they were talking about reality television when they said that. Or is it that they say something is always in the last place you looked for it? Either way. The idea of finding wisdom in reality television is beyond unexpected, but yet a couple weeks ago, I found myself sitting on the couch with my mouth agape while watching #BlackLove (yes, the hashtag is part of the name) on FYI. Stop judging my choices in educational programming, people. Basically, it’s a show about 5 African-American women who are struggling to find love, for one reason or another, in NYC. I won’t get into the plot (A.J. says there isn’t one) or the characters (he thinks they’re all awful but yet is just as riveted as I am), just one very important truth bomb dropped by the mother of one of the women.

If you watch #BlackLove please notify me immediately because I have a lot of thoughts I’d like to share with you, including but not limited to my cult-like worship of Nneka’s hat collection.

“You have to be careful about what you tell yourself about your past,” she said. Dude. Whoa. What you tell yourself about the past. Not “what happened in the past,” but what you tell yourself about what happened in the past. Mind blown.

The quote was timely, as this week marks five years since my ex-husband and I officially separated. The way I think about him, myself, our relationship and my life in general has changed markedly over the years, but I’ve mostly chalked that up to the passage of time. It never occurred to me that the narrative I tell myself about my childhood, my relationships, and other events of my past is actively reinforcing positive or negative personality traits. To me, the past was an inarguable account of what had happened to me, and the present was a direct result of those events. I didn’t realize that I had control over how each event impacted me. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the narratives that I used to tell myself about the past and what I probably should have been saying instead.

Five years ago as I write this, my dad arrived at my house ready to help dig me out of the hole I had put myself in. Couldn’t have done it without him! Thanks, Facebook, for the reminder.

To give an example: Before I met AJ, I was in crappy relationship after crappy relationship, and I mean really crappy. Each of the individuals struggled with the same problem, and although they treated me differently, the core issues were the same. For years, I told myself that I was not a good girlfriend/fiancee/wife and was never going to find someone who treated me well. Their behavior was a reflection on me, and if I was better, they would be better: “You don’t deserve happiness. Look at all the horrible people you attract into your life – there’s a reason you keep getting into bad relationships. You’re the problem.” That’s pretty damaging, right? It’s tough work to be the sole cause of all of another person’s problems, especially when you’ve just met them! But that’s what I believed. It would have been similarly misguided to say: “Gee, I just have bad luck in relationships! Men are evil and they all suck.” As time went on and the bad relationships piled up, I reinforced my own belief. What I should have said instead was: “Okay, Danielle. Sometimes, you place too much trust in people who do not deserve it. You pick guys who seem like they have more problems than you because you don’t believe anyone will love you for who you are. You have a heart for the underdog even though the underdog sometimes comes back to bite you. How can you do a better job of screening who you let into your life without becoming bitter in the process?” 

See the difference? All the situations recognize my role in creating my own situation, but they are framed totally differently. The first and second narratives condemn me to a lifetime of bad relationships because I deem myself flawed, unfixable, or unlucky. The third accepts my personality traits as neither good nor bad and offers a path forward.

Dear Past Danielle: The future involves a total babe of a husband and a dog of questionable intelligence but supermodel looks. You’ll be fine.

It’s not just relationships where this advice applies. In fact, as adult-onset athletes (that’s a real term, I didn’t make it up – I swear!), we often place limitations on ourselves based on what we did or did not do athletically in our past. For example: “I can’t run a marathon. I was terrible at sports in school. I didn’t even run the mile! I’m just not athletic.” Well, there you go, right? You’ve pretty much written your own future out based on your past. And you know who said that exact sentence to themselves many times? Me. In case you’re new here, I’ve run 50 marathons. What changed? Well, without even realizing it, my narrative did: “Ok, I hated running when I was a kid, but I never really gave it a try outside of P.E. I was good at riding horses – that’s pretty athletic. Maybe running won’t be so bad if I start slowly.” Again, it’s the same facts – yeah, I hated running when I was a kid, that’s true. But I never gave it or any other sport much of an effort. What if I applied the same focus and drive that I had when it came to academics or horseback riding and watched where that would take me? What if you reframed your narrative about your athletic past and sought the positive while acknowledging the negative? How would your goals change?

I’m sure the guys at Rhodes Hall High School who tried to teach me how to throw a discus have a lot of thoughts about my athletic narrative, but that’s neither here nor there.

Lately, as you know, I’ve been all about living with intention, but one of the biggest parts of that (for me, anyway) is being financially focused. My whole life, I have believed I’m just one of those people who is “not good” at saving money. Even my parents told me that constantly as a little kid – my brother was the saver, and I was the one whose money burned a hole in my pocket. Was it true? Yeah, probably, but even as a small child, I began to believe that the ability to save or spend was something we were just born with it. After all, my brother was 5 and he had the same parents as me and he was good at it; I’m 7 and I can’t save a dime! So, I just sort of accepted that as my fate – I’d never successfully save money and that would be that. As an adult, it’s an aspect of my personality that I’ve found constantly frustrating, even though I’m much better about it than I used to be: I have a 401k, multiple personal savings accounts and I don’t live paycheck to paycheck. I work my day job, teach at Barre3, and do a ton of freelance and blog work to support my goals. But still, I’m not the best at holding myself back from buying something I really want and focusing on my long term goals. I mean, I was born that way, right?

One spender, one saver, one creepy 90s Glamour Shot. Please note my luxurious hair #bornthisway

Wrong. It all comes back to discipline. Ultimately, when I tell myself that I just “can’t” save or I’ll just fail like all of the other times I’ve tried, I’m telling myself a damaging story about the past. I’m giving myself an excuse not to meet my goals instead of setting myself up for success by facing reality and determining a path forward. Instead of saying “There’s no point in trying to save money because I have no impulse control and I’ll just spend it like I always have,” I can say something more constructive. “I acknowledge that saving money has been a challenge for me, but I have succeeded in the short term in the past. I know that strategy XYZ helps me to save and feel good about the choices I’m making. How can I implement that in the long term while maintaining a quality of life that I enjoy?”

Maybe it would be helpful if I just start telling myself I am very rich? Power of positive thinking, amiright?

See, I realized while watching that silly/excellent show that being careful about what we tell ourselves about the past doesn’t mean we have to lie to ourselves or avoid reality. We don’t have to run from our problems; in fact, facing them is the only way to solve them. But by blaming our problems on other people or placing disproportionate blame on ourselves, we fail to adequately recognize the reality of the situation. For me at least, the bulk of my personal issues are neither entirely the result of others’ actions in my past nor my personal failings in the present; they fall somewhere in between. I’m not perfect, but I’m also not the worst person on the planet. My past has had plenty of rough spots and poor choices, but there have been many great decisions and glorious days, too. I bet yours is the same way.

So, be careful about what you tell yourself about your past. Accept credit where credit is due and accept the blame, too. And keep your eyes and ears peeled for wisdom no matter where you are and what you’re doing – you never know when a reality show might totally change how you think about your life.

LEAVE A COMMENT: Are you telling yourself any inaccurate stories about your past?


23 thoughts on “What I Tell Myself About the Past

  1. I love this so much. All of it….kind of especially that you discovered this watching #BlackLove. I mean, seriously?
    I had a similar revelation about my high school self and how I felt like I made so many horrible decisions during a time when my mom died. It wasn’t until I went to my 20th high school reunion and saw a video of myself that i realized how harshly I was judging a teenager who just lost her mom.
    That saying is something I feel needs to be stitched into a pillow and put on my desk chair.
    Thank you!

    1. Wow, Allie, thank you so much for sharing your story! That is powerful, and it must have been a hard realization to have! It’s crazy to think how hard we can be on ourselves, even during such difficult times.

  2. My adviser lectured that memories are beliefs about the past.

    That statement has resonated me with me and why I spent the last 15 years or so studying memory (I’m a cognitive psychologist).

    1. That’s a GREAT statement, Elle! It’s so true! We take our memories as fact so often, but they are just one interpretation of events. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Wow, what a great post. I gotta tell you… the last few weeks you have really impacted my thought processes… First with the motivation vs. discipline post….mind blown/opened!!! And now this one is pretty damn good as well!!!! Lots to think about….
    On another note… I also have a dog of questionable intelligence, but supermodel looks!!! Hilarious!!
    Adult Onset Athlete….LOVE LOVE LOVE it!! I’m using that from now on and just might make a t-shirt!!!

    1. Aww, thank you so much! I’m so glad my posts have been impactful lately. Sometimes, I go a long time without any “deep” posts at all, and others I find a lot of inspiration all at once. It means a lot that you can relate – especially on the dog part, hehe!

  4. Great post – I’m sending it to a friend that believes she is the reason for bad relationships when I tell her over and over it isn’t her.

  5. my current babe of a boyfriend (I still sometimes feel like I need to pinch myself to see if it’s real) tells me this stuff all the time! Ummm…maybe he could be right?

  6. This is such a wonderful post and I can definetely relate to it. I made a lot of terrible decisions in my past that I’ve come out of the other side thankfully. I’m glad you feel like you’re in a better spot. I think that is honestly one of the most important parts. Thanks for sharing this personal post.

    1. Thanks, Hollie! It seems like things are going well in your life now, regardless of what happened before. It’s easy to let ourselves get stuck – what matters is working to be better and coming out strong on the other side!

  7. That is soooooo true!
    I think I’ve done fairly well on changing what I tell myself about ME, but that dang money one likes to rear it’s head. So. This year I’m working on it. Because I know I can and I’m better than my past.

    1. We can do it, Ange! I think sometimes it can be easy to use the past as an excuse or to let it hold us back when we are resistant to change. I have definitely been guilty of that!!

  8. Needed this, Danielle! Great post. It is so important to shift our perspective and realize that ‘mistakes’ in our past can be used as learning and help us to grow and change. Our experiences…whether viewed as positive or negative are part of us but don’t need to define us! Someone once said that we should be like trees. They shed their leaves…letting go of the past and of what doesn’t serve them..and this allows room for new leaves (experiences) to grow.

    And PS….Can I just say that your hair in the pic of you, AJ, & Rocket is truly PHENOMENAL!!!

    1. Thank you so much, Caroline! It’s amazing how much what we think about the past really determines how those events actually affect us. It’s easy to think of our memories and feelings as “fact,” when they’re definitely just one interpretation of the events! I love the tree quote – that’s perfect!

  9. Even if I had nothing to say about this, I would have to comment on that photo of you and your brother. That. is. AWESOME! (And he must just love that you shared it on your blog.)

    I had a friend who lied to herself to the point that she completely rewrote her life in many events. Dealing with that for a good five years of my mid-twenties helped teach me to be aware of the narrative I let myself live with. YAY, to better framing of your own story!

    1. Hahaha my brother almost definitely does not read my blog! But I mean, it’s such a good picture, how could he be mad?

      I definitely can relate to your situation. I’ve seen behavior in people in my life that I didn’t like, but then realized I was doing the same thing. It’s helpful for self-awareness sometimes, even if it is a pain in the process!

  10. Danielle, you have wisdom beyond your years! I’m glad you’re more comfortable in your own skin and great hair! Can’t wait for you to blog from Nepal!!

    1. Thanks so much, Murray! I learned a few things from one of the best psychologists I know 🙂

  11. I love this post – we were talking about it the day before we headed to NYC to visit our son, but never had the chance to reply – yet it has stuck with me and I wanted to reply. I think what you say is so true and all of us do it.

    To me it all comes back to Star Wars “you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

    I have always known this – and yet I have always allows negative self-talk and an unbalanced narrative to shape my reality. I think we all do. My ‘stuff’ has to do with my weight and weight loss, my running ability, and a bunch of stuff I chose to accept about when I got laid off and a few projects from early in my Corning years.

    I also think back to the narrative I had getting out of college right after the ’87 stock market crash without a job secured … and had this narrative for myself based on an older cousin who lived at home for many years as an adult. I know it was bolstered by my mother … but it had me living at home saving money until I was 35 and then buying a townhouse for myself. Once I got a good engineering job and started losing weight I realized that was *someone else’s* story, not mine …

    Sometimes there can be 99 wonderfully positive things said about you, and yet that 1 negative (and maybe not even really negative) thing is where we put all of our mind space …

    1. You’re absolutely right, Michael! I can definitely see this issue translating into the weight loss sphere, as well. I would imagine that people who have been overweight for a long time or their whole lives could have difficulty believing that change is possible because their narrative tells them otherwise. Especially if you have lost weight and gone through a period of relapse and regain once (or a few!) times. It would be easy to give up the effort because your mind is telling you you’ll fail eventually anyway. Thanks for adding your perspective, and congratulations on beating your narrative!

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