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Inner Ghosts

When you're haunted by the past, sometimes you need a sort of exorcism before your life can go forward.

By Joanie Connors


Don't believe in ghosts? Who needs ghosts when so many of us are haunted by the past?

Not all ghosts are disembodied spirits. There are also inner ghosts — images and feelings that we can't let go of from earlier parts of our lives. Though inner ghosts are just echoes of past experiences, they have ruined millions of lives, keeping people in fear and other negative feelings and controlling their choices in life.

Everyone is affected by the past, but while some see the past as a challenge, others become so identified with past experiences that they are powerless to go forward or improve their lives. Inner ghosts can trap people in misery, making them act out the same dead-end dramas over and over again.

Inner ghosts come mostly from our childhoods, when our personalities were being shaped. The most overpowering ghosts come from the tender stages of early childhood, before we were able to defend ourselves or understand what was happening. But inner ghosts can result from a strong experience at any point of our lives.


Living today as if it were yesterday. Some people are so controlled by their past ghosts that they never get beyond the negative feelings and behaviors they learned in their earlier lives. Others hold onto bad experiences as if these define who they are, and let the past determine their choices and limit their lives. These negative feelings and images weigh us down like a sack of stones and keep us in prisons of old resentments and tragedies.

For those who hold onto the past, it is as though people from old relationships are following them around, constantly whispering in their ears. These ghostly messages still affect their thoughts and feelings and they are not able to live in the present and appreciate life's gifts.


Common Inner Ghosts

Sometimes the wrongs did not even occur to the person who holds the grudge, but to past generations of their family or culture. Think of how some people from southern US states have still not gotten over the Civil War and give that enormous power over their attitudes and choices.

But while traumatic events cause pain and turmoil to all who suffer through them, amazingly, about a third of the victims are not ultimately diminished by them. These survivors of extreme trauma do not accept the victim role and strive to both heal and become better people, such as by becoming involved in causes that help victims of similar traumas.


Storylines. Ghosts like these contribute the themes and characters for the storylines of people's lives, whether they are evolving stories or negative drama cycle traps. Inner ghosts also activate and motivate old pattern addictions, which represent an escape into comfort regardless of whether the patterns are dramatic, tragic or comic.

A clue to know if your storyline has become a trap is if it produces the same outcomes again and again: Have you been here before?

If your storyline makes you happy and is leading you where you want to go, then perhaps your inner ghosts are good ones. If your storyline is full of troubles and problems and is leading you to stress, emptiness or illness, then I invite you to break free of the ghosts who keep you trapped in it!


Breaking Free of Old Ghosts

  1. Make a decision — The first step to removing old ghosts from your life is to make a decision that you are ready to let go of them. It takes a real commitment to do the work of letting go, and you won't be able to get free unless you are ready to give up the old you and find out who you could become without the prison of old limitations and patterns.
  2. Find forgiveness — A big source of power for inner ghosts is not forgiving yourself or another for the past. Learning how to forgive those who have done you wrong, and forgiving yourself for real or imagined faults, is a real key to taking power away from old ghosts.
  3. Use willpower and patience — It takes great patience and determination to keep from listening to old ghosts that keep you trapped in old, comfortable patterns. To escape, you have to challenge them every time they come back and practice supreme patience with yourself for your weaknesses and slipups.
  4. Force yourself to experiment and try new things — New and unfamiliar ways of thinking and acting take more effort and will often not feel "right" for a while. Often we have to make ourselves keep experimenting with new ways until something works for us.
  5. Change your environment — Do you have things that keep reminding you of old ghosts or is your environment keeping you in the past? Think seriously about whether you really need those reminders around in your life. If you have to keep something, think about changing it (e.g. reframing a photograph) or moving it (e.g. from next to your bed into a guest room). If getting away from old ghosts is crucial to your happiness and health, it might be worth selling a house or moving to another neighborhood or town to get away from them.
  6. Bring in positive reminders — Bring in, or move to center stage, pictures and objects that can remind you of your power to change and the life you wish to have. Examples of these might be pictures of heroes, religious statues and pictures, wise books, framed sayings and power objects (e.g. a bowl of Chimayo dirt).
  7. Try creating an ending ritual — Rituals that you are familiar with can be used to create a sense of closure when letting go of an old ghost. For example, the six nations of the Iroquois buried their weapons and planted a pine tree over them. Perhaps you might want to bury your "weapons" (e.g. letters, clothes, photographs) and plant a tree or bush over them to help your new life grow.

Study and practice present-moment awareness, especially meditation to quiet the mind. There are many good teachers and authors on awareness, such as Eckhart Tolle and quite a few profound Buddhist teachers who can really help free you from the past.


Freedom from inner ghosts involves taking away their power, not obliterating them. History is important as a teacher because it contains volumes of information about how we became who we are. There are many lessons and clues for bettering our lives that come from occasionally reexamining and understanding our pasts.

You can keep old ghosts in your inner library for continuing insights and the occasional good story. Inner ghosts can also help us to remember the good things and use past trials to help you stick to your resolutions and goals. This is using the past in the context of the present.


Change is hard. Even when the patterns we've had have led to nothing but disaster, most of us constantly slip back into old feelings and behaviors. Whether you are trying to think of yourself as a success, or not drink, or stay on a diet, the old ghosts will tell you "that's not me" and urge you to slip backwards.

These slips into the past account for most of our negative emotions and relationship failures. When that happens, we just have to remember those things that helped us get reoriented and use them again to return to living in the present.


Dr. Joanie Connors is a counseling psychologist who specializes in relationship systems psychology and teaches for WNMU. She lives in Silver City.


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