The holiday season is a time of year when it’s easy to reminisce about the past, evaluate the events of the prior year, and remember loved ones who may not be celebrating with us. Perhaps you’re preparing your fire ceremony to finally rid yourself of the mementos you’ve hung onto from your ex. Maybe you’re getting together with old friends for a reunion. These are all human experiences and fun ones at that, to help us remember pieces of life that have helped us make us what we are. But what happens when remembering the past turns into staying stuck in it?
Living in the past can take many forms.
Maybe it’s someone who laments their parent’s death with tears and high emotion still several years or decades after their passing. Perhaps it’s the friend who still lives in his time of military service; still walking, standing, and “attending” as though he’s still under the command of his sergeant. We all have that friend who can seem to turn any conversation into a story about the glory days when he or she was a star athlete and made the big play.
Some may think there’s nothing wrong with this; others know all too well how damaging this can be. Living in the past stops us from being present in the moment and from making plans or preparing for the future. Talk to the family of the long-grieving parent who for years will suddenly cry during all kinds of moments over the loss of their parent. There you’ll hear stories of guilt, resentment, and hindered joy. Speak with the spouse of the high school football hero who can’t seem to get out of the 12th grade and the championship game winning touchdown and you might find discontent, shame, or feelings of inadequacy.
So how can this become a way of life instead of a brief moment in time?
It can happen for several reasons and present in many ways. It is much easier to daydream about the ex-lover that was sweet and kind when you and your partner are fighting. It’s easier to focus on the job where you were the top dog and well appreciated when you feel unappreciated in your current situation. It may be that we believe in our core that anything in the future may never be as good as it was in the past. We may find that the time we are fixated on is a moment where we have “unfinished business”; a lover who scorned us or the death of a loved one we wronged. It may be that living in the past has become a habit, a loop that we continue to live in because it’s comfortable there, we know what happened and our expectations are always met, even if our memories are not completely accurate.
So how can you tell if the past is where you live or whether your strolls back in time are keeping you from being your best and reaching your goals?
It will take some serious introspection and work on your part. You must first evaluate if you are indeed a past-dweller. Do you use the phrases like “…back when…”, “…when I was…”, or “…I/it used to…” more often than others you’re in conversation with? Do you find yourself daydreaming about the past, a particular person, or situation more often than present or future situations? When you remember the past, do you find that your emotions tend to turn towards the negative (sadness, anger, depression, resentment)? Are friends or family members reluctant to talk to you about certain events or people from the past? This could be because they anticipate an emotional response or have been drawn into the loop before.
Stop the loop.
There are ways to stop this loop that keeps you from achieving your dreams and diminishing your joy.
The first step is to look at what you gain from settling back into the past story. It may help to get a piece of paper out and write down the answers to these questions. As your stream of consciousness opens your mind, you can record things that affect you and review them later.
So how does it make you feel to remember this past time period, person, or situation?
What need is it filling for you now to look into the past and linger there? Do you feel significant or secure? Are you feeling a sense of connection? Does this look into what once was make you feel happy, sad, or some other emotion and if so, is this an emotion you find more difficult to reproduce elsewhere in your life?
Once you have discovered what you gain. It’s time to look at what those gains bring into your present life. Does it help you escape your current situation? Does it temporarily calm your fears about the future? Do you look more or less favorably on your current life? Does the thought of the future seem appealing in context to the past or does it bring about anxiety or fear?
How is dwelling in the past hurting you?
How has staying in that period of time kept you from seizing opportunities or damaged relationships? Have you used a past event to hurt your partner during an argument for instance? How does it make you feel to think about those losses? Do you dwell so much that it keeps you from acting to improve your business, health, financial situation, relationships or otherwise?
Write a gratitude list.
The list should include all of the people and situations you can imagine, your career, hobbies, pets, etc. Write a list of things for several minutes and then review your list. As you read each item, think about that person or situation and feel in your heart all the good things that you’re grateful for, why you’re grateful and your hope for the future with this person or situation.
This gratitude exercise now has you in the right frame of mind to do the work to move out of the past and into your present. So, refer back to the previous exercise of how dwelling in the past makes you feel. How can you provide yourself with this feeling today? How can you feel the same today that you did back then? How can you feel the same about your life in the present?
Now take responsibility for the life you have now.
Take responsibility for your life, the way you want it to be, and what you’re doing to achieve that. See it as it really is. Don’t see it better than or worse than the true reality. Write down all the good things and ways you are proud of your life as well as the areas where you want improvement. Be as honest as possible with yourself. If you need extra support, find a friend that knows you really well and let them help you walk through this.
It can be difficult to look inward and accept that we have made our lives exactly what they are today if there are aspects within it that we don’t like. This exercise can help us be present and make the changes necessary to turn our lives into the lives we dream of. If you find in going through this process, there is a decision you’ve made in the past or a situation you never fully dealt with, now is the time to confront it head on. Did you allow yourself to fully grieve the loss of your loved one? Are you holding on to resentment towards an ex-spouse? Do you have unfiled taxes? Grieve, let go, pay the taxes. There is no timeline for grieving but, if we bury those feelings, we can stifle growth and movement in the present. Pay the fine and free yourself for the life you want.
Make plans for the future.
Determine what’s needed most for you to move forward and make concrete plans to complete them. Make the doctor appointment. Send a letter or message to the estranged family member accepting your part in the situation. If you don’t succeed, try again or try something different. Enlist help if you think you need it. The important thing is to keep moving forward. As you make strides towards letting go of the past, you will be building the strength to stay present and make choices that improve your future. You’ll find joy and comfort in the present. Soon, that past situation will no longer hold you back.
Love and honor, always