When you reflect on your past, what do you think of and how do you feel? If you are like most people you are invigorated with distant memories of love and joy – perhaps you reflect on past romances, distant lands, old friends or small successes.
But there is a flip side to reminiscing on the past.
As well as elation, you probably also feel a lot of pain, regret, disappointment and even shame. And this is also normal. It is completely human to suffer as a result of reflecting on the past, and we all experience this in different shapes and forms.
While some of us find relief and peace in relinquishing the past and embracing the present, others of us somehow can’t seem to escape from the “grips” of the past and the impact it has had on our lives.
For some of us, the past literally consumes our entire waking lives and controls what we decide to do, say and how we choose to be. Perhaps most regrettably, living in the past actually sabotages and slowly undermines our relationships with our friends, family members, children and partners.
If you feel completely dominated and drained because of your past, this article could help you rediscover the inherent tranquility that resides in you right, now.
Why Do You Live in the Past?
Why do some people live in the past, and others live more in the present moment? There could be a number of reasons. If you live in the past you most likely:
- Were raised in an environment that encouraged such a habit (e.g. you might have had parents who were constantly mourning over the past).
- Inherited a certain biology or genetics that predisposed you to depression or other tendencies that contribute to your past-dwelling.
- Adopted the habit of living in the past as a coping (or escape) mechanism to avoid the present, i.e. from taking responsibility over your happiness and your life.
- Adopted the habit as a result of low self-esteem and the unconscious belief that “you don’t deserve to be happy,” contributing to your tendency to constantly self-sabotage your happiness.
Let’s explore a few examples of living in the past that are fairly common in our society, and potentially your life:
- You constantly reflect and replay in your mind a horrible or traumatic event that occurred in the past, perpetuating your feeling of being a victim.
- You constantly reflect on when “times where better” and how “vastly better the past was/society was/people were back in the day.”
- You ruminate on something that made you feel ashamed or embarrassed in the past and avoid it in the present.
- You are perpetually filled with regret for a choice you “should have made” in the past.
- You have a habit of chronically mourning a “past love” or someone who died.
- You are continually comparing the past to the present, and how the present should resemble the past.
- You try to restore what you had in the past in the present.
There are many other variations and example of living in the past, but these illustrations listed above compose the main types of past-dwelling.
How Living in the Past Gradually Destroys Your Connections with Others
There is nothing as potentially lethal to your relationship with others as constantly living in the past. As a child growing up with my perpetually past-dwelling mother, I can give you a first-hand account of what it feels like to live with a person who is constantly obsessing, ruminating and mourning over “what was.”
Above all, you feel taken for granted. You feel invisible, forgotten and ignored. Through time you become a simple backdrop in the life of the person constantly fixated with the past. It isn’t long before a huge rift; a deep gap is cut through the middle of your relationship which is, by the way, very hard to mend.
The consequences of living in the past involve psychologically and emotionally neglecting those you love best. The consequences of living in the past involve alienating the good will and intentions of others. The consequences of living in the past involve killing the very essence of what makes connections with others so joyful and fulfilling: life.
Why? Because living in the past is essentially substituting the liveliness of the present moment, with the death and has-been of the past.
Living in the past is essentially living in death.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
How to Be Reborn into the Present, with all its Joy and Sadness
You might have been told the old adage:
The past is non-existent, dead, gone. You can’t fix it, you can’t change it, so stop trying to.
However, this truism might have done nothing for you but make you feel even more miserable and stranded.
Often it takes much more to drop an addiction than simply agreeing with a saying – and living in the past is indeed an addiction by its very nature – so don’t worry. There is much more to it.
Let’s explore ways of being “reborn” in the present moment.
1. Recognize whether you find your misery comforting or not.
Why would a person possibly want to relinquish a habit that they actually benefit out of? Indeed, most habits benefit us in a variety of morbid ways, and past-dwelling isn’t exempt from this.
How does past-dwelling potentially benefit you? Most likely it gifts you with certainty and control. Happiness and fulfillment for many people are scary things because of their inability to be controlled or captured. We fear transience and instability, so dwelling in the past can often be a way of gaining control over the chaos of our lives, and preventing us from being vulnerable (having something taken away from us like joy). Thus we take solace in our misery. Misery is certain, misery can be controlled and misery is familiar.
Not only that, but many people use self-imposed misery to distract themselves from the present moment; from the emptiness of their lives, from their fear of living courageously, from their fear of failure, from the fear of being responsible for the outcome of their existence.
Living in the past can give us a key to avoiding self-responsibility in the present. It is the highest form of avoidance.
2. Ask yourself: if you let go of your misery, what would you lose? (You will lose something.)
This question takes a lot of honest self-inquiry. As we have seen in the previous point, it is common for us to gain something from dwelling in the past, something very powerful.
Whether you dwell in the past to avoid self-responsibility in the present; to feel “in control” of your life; to feel like a righteous “victim”; or to even preserve the memory of a loved one you can’t let go because of the fear of living, there is something that you would lose if you were to relinquish your habit right now.
What is that something?
Once you discover with unconditional honesty what that thing is, ask yourself: “Am I ready to surrender that? Am I ready to move on?” The answer to this question will determine how much success you have in overcoming past-dwelling.
3. Become consumed in something – now.
The next step in the process of present living is finding something to be consumed in, right here, right now in the present moment. This most likely involves fulfilling a long-held dream, like attempting to write a book, or create a flower garden, or even cleaning out the whole house. No matter how romantic or homely your interest is, do it. If you don’t have a long-held passion or plan, think of something. Even the act of researching is a form of being consumed.
Occupy yourself in the present, and you won’t have time to dwell in the past.
4. What are you thankful for?
When we have been stuck in the mindset of “what was” it is difficult to appreciate “what is.” For this reason, for many people gratitude, or simply being thankful in the present moment, is a gift that doesn’t come easily. But that’s OK, it can be strengthened through practice. Being thankful for what you have is a wonderful way of breaking the habit of living in the past. Whenever you feel yourself slipping backwards, ask “what is something that I can feel gratitude for right now?”
5. Accept the uncertainty of life.
The truth is that life is uncertain, unstable and unpredictable. Often, this realization is what promotes the habit of past-dwelling: to escape what is, to preserve a false sense of “control.” But life cannot be put into a tightly held box. We all experience loss, but the important thing to remember is that all bad and good things in life provide us opportunities to grow, to become deeper, wiser and stronger. Don’t pass up this chance. You are what you believe after all.
Being consumed in the past is not as simple as people make it out to be. It is not simply about recognizing that the past is dead and gone, but actively questioning and replacing old sabotaging mindsets and behaviors with alternatives. It is true that many things can be gained from living in the past, and once we become aware of these unhealthy rewards, and the ways in which they sabotage our relationships with others, we can open ourselves to change.
What have your experiences been with living in the past? Please share for the benefit of others!