The problem with living in the past
Of course, there’s a very valid place for reviewing the past in order to learn lessons and process issues, but most of us a disproportionate amount of our time dwelling on the past in a way that:
- causes suffering in the present
- doesn’t move us forward
- can actually obstruct our progress
When you find yourself incessantly mulling over the past, it’s tempting to wish things hadn’t happened as they had, or that you had done something differently, or married a different person, or become a best-selling novelist, millionaire or supermodel rather than a booking clerk. But these conjectures are totally fruitless. It would clearly be more valuable to ponder constructively on matters which you can do something about, or at least learn something from.
Such regrets can be an aspect of overly dwelling in the past – going back to a time in the past and wishing you had done something differently, often in a repeated and protracted pattern. The present-oriented way of dealing with this would be:
- Consider whether there is anything you can do now to alter the situation which was created by your past action or inaction
- If there is, do it; if the regret pops up, remind yourself that you have done what you can to remedy the situation, and let it go
- If there isn’t anything you can do to remedy the situation: when the regret pops up, remind yourself that there’s nothing you can do, and move on
Robert Holden offers a witty yet profound observation in this regard. Sometimes, he says, in order to be happy in the present moment, you have to be willing to give up all hope for a better past. Indeed so.
Next instalment: What’s so wrong with dwelling on the Future?