Everyone has experienced the moments of melancholy that hit us when we think too much about the past. Sometimes they are triggered by a conversation with friends, sometimes by a song or a smell or clearing out the boxes from underneath the bed. Thinking about the past is a natural and often perfectly healthy thing to do when we let the moment drift past and return wholeheartedly to our lives in the present. Unfortunately, that isn’t always easy to do, especially when events in the past feel like a dark cloud hovering over our current lives or if our present feels like a pale shadow of the life we used to lead. Sometimes, thinking about the past take over our present completely.
Dwelling on the Negative
Psychologists refer to dwelling on negative things, in the past or present, as ‘ruminating’. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema at Yale University conducted numerous studies on ruminating and discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that people who persistently focus on negative things are far more likely to become and remain depressed. It sounds obvious when laid out that way; how can dwelling on the negative not lead to depression and misery?
Unfortunately, over the years, the media has popularised the idea that the only way to deal with events in the past that have had a negative impact on our lives is to talk about them. Talk therapy and psychotherapies are predicated on the idea that digging into our past can explain our present problems and emotions, which can certainly be true if you have an unexplained issue or emotional problem. This does not, however, mean that talking about the past can resolve those issues or emotional problems; there is a world of difference between identifying a trigger from the past and dwelling on the events that caused the trigger.
Dwelling on the negative things that happened to us only serves to prevent us from moving forward into the future. They become excuses and ‘reasons’ not to make steps in the present to correct issues in our lives and, more importantly, reliving distressing or traumatic events in the past over and over again in our heads reopens the wound time and time again, making it impossible to start to heal.
Rose Tinted Nostalgia
Conversely, for many adults the past was a simpler and happier time. As we get older, often our friendships become more difficult to maintain and making new friendships seems to border on the impossible. For those that did not find a partner early in life or who do not have a family around them, memories of the past can be extremely enticing. Reminding ourselves of a time when we felt carefree and had an abundance of friends before people paired up and settled down, or thinking of a time we used to be successful in our careers before becoming sick or entering a period of unemployment can remind us that we are capable of living a life that held happiness or meaning.
It is difficult to accept that life changes – especially when those changes leave us feeling lonely or unfulfilled. Nostalgic memories of happier times are one thing, but when this turns to self recrimination for ‘allowing’ our lives to get off track or bitterness and anger about whatever it is that we feel derailed things, thinking about past happiness becomes just as dangerous as thinking about past trauma.
Leaving the Past in the Past
Many people do not realise that it is possible to stop thinking about the past. They will insist that they cannot stop the thoughts that pop into their head and are unable to prevent the periods of rumination that bring them down and stop them from moving toward a happier and healthier future.
It is very difficult to stop thoughts from popping into your head. It is, however, entirely possible to prevent yourself from dwelling on those thoughts or giving them space in your head. Acknowledging that you get to choose what you spend your time focussing on is the first step, after understanding how dwelling on the past is damaging you, to healing in the present.
When thoughts of the past pop into your head, consider the following:
Have I thought about this before? Did thinking about it then resolve anything in my present? If the answer is no, then thinking about the past could well be damaging and engaging in something to distract yourself from your thoughts instead. Make a list of activities you can do that do not involve thinking about the past and have this on hand.
Is there a current problem that needs to be resolved? If there is a current issue or problem, instead of dwelling on the things in the past that led to the difficulties you are experiencing, get into problem solving mode instead. Make positive plans to deal with the problem or seek help from professionals offering Cognitive Behavioural Therapies to help with adjusting your mind-set and finding solutions to current issues. CBT is proven to be extremely effective for helping people reclaim their present from problems and issues caused by past events, without spending excessive time discussing them.
Will thinking about this change what happened? The answer is, assuredly, a solid no. Accepting the bad things that happened in the past or the things that changed our lives in negative ways to create our current future is a powerful tool. Practising self compassion and treating ourselves with kindness and respect goes a long way to helping us move forward. If you would not constantly remind someone you care about of traumatic and terrible things that happened to them in the past, or bring up perceived mistakes again and again, you should not do this to yourself either. You are as deserving of care, protection and compassion as anyone else.
The past has only as much power as we choose to give it. It is not easy and it takes effort but the reward is the future you are giving yourself by leaving the past where it belongs. You have the power to choose – choose to reclaim your present and stop letting the past steal your future. If you feel like you need help and support, join our forums and chat rooms and find other people facing the same problems and struggles; we are stronger together.