This is a guest post by Angela Charles, M.S., Life Coach
A number of experiences lately that have prompted me to think about the past…the good, the bad, and the ugly parts. What makes the past so compelling to recall? It’s not here anymore so you’d think it would be far removed from our minds. And yet, a particular smell, a song, or even a statement made by a new friend can instantly bring us back to another time.
I have detailed on my own blog a few of the pros and cons of nostalgia. There are numerous of arguments about the positive and negative aspects of nostalgia within the psychology and philosophy fields and if you type the word nostalgia into Google, you’ll find almost a hundred million results! So, what’s with all the interest? What are the pros and cons?
Let’s start with the good side:
- It can be fun looking back on old times, especially when we’re reminiscing with other people!
- We can learn from our mistakes in order to avoid making the same ones again.
- By remembering the people and situations that have been important to us in the past, it’s like we’re honoring them in a way and acknowledging their importance.
As I think about nostalgia and write about the different sides, I am beginning to clarify which side of the debate I’m on. The above points are all fine and good, but often times we get TOO focused on the past and find it difficult to move forward. It’s like we’re caught in quicksand, fighting to make forward progress but our bodies are stuck in one place and our minds are back somewhere else!
So, I would argue that looking back on the past can have some incredibly unhealthy repercussions on the present and future. Here’s why:
A) It can keep us from noticing new people or opportunities that appear in life today. Let’s say you dated a guy who really broke your heart. You find yourself looking at old photos, bringing him up in conversations with friends and thinking about him all the time! You go to a party and an attractive guy approaches you to chat. You hardly notice him though because you’re so distracted looking over his shoulder to see if your ex has arrived yet. There is a cute, friendly guy right in front of you that you are hardly willing to acknowledge him because all you can focus on is the guy from your past.
B) It can keep us stuck. Similar to the example above, I was pretty hung up on an ex for quite a while after we ended things. On top of that, I was working in a job I didn’t care about, watching all of my friends get married and move on with their lives and I found myself just wallowing for almost a whole year. I refused to allow myself to stop dreaming of the way things used to be and accept the way things were. I was stuck, discouraged, unmotivated and depressed.
C) It can give us a false sense of what’s real. Picture this scenario: A family is arguing all night. They pause momentarily to take a picture. Looking back you would never guess this was the same family that had been fighting – the picture distorted reality – because in it they are all smiles. Similarly, when we recall the past, our memories tend to be a little rosier than the reality actually was. This can be dangerous when it comes to rekindling an unhealthy romance, reuniting with a toxic friend or going back to a job you have forgotten you really used to hate. If we can’t recall things the way they really were, we may end up back in some tough situations rather than learning from them and moving on.
So the question is… how do you preserve the memories (end even enjoy looking back from time-to-time) but still move forward with your life?
1) Work through the real issue. Here’s what I mean: If you’re still stuck on that guy who broke your heart, the real issue might be that you’re lonely. Or perhaps you feel insecure about showing up dateless to big events now that you no longer have that readily-available plus one. Or maybe you’re bored because you don’t have anyone to hang out with on Friday nights. Whatever the real issue is, focus on that instead of the guy, because he’s gone and it’s time to move on!
2) Use the past to inform your future, but stop living in it! The past can be useful. The memories of past experiences where we hurt ourselves or got in trouble etc. can serve as reminders to either avoid those kinds of situations in the future or handle them differently.
3) Preserve the memories with photo albums and journals. There is something powerful about getting the memories out of your head and onto a page (whether it’s a journal page or a scrapbook)! That way, you still have them in a safe place, but your mind is freed up to be more alert and aware of what’s going on today!
4) If possible, get closure. This may mean having a tough conversation to let someone know how you feel. It may mean confessing something you’ve done that has caused you to carry around feelings of guilt for years. Or, if it isn’t possible (or wouldn’t be healthy) to actually speak to someone directly, you can write a letter. Whether you send the letter or not, merely writing your feelings down will help. Counselors frequently use this technique to help people express themselves when they can’t actually do so in person.
5) Talk to someone. Sometimes having a sounding board is all you need to clarify how you really feel and move forward. Whether it’s a friend, mentor, spouse or professional, that objective point-of-view can be crucial in helping you understand why you’re feeling stuck and how to get past it.