People often talk about living in the past like it’s one of the biggest mistakes you could make. But there are so many ways you can interpret “living in the past.” Unfortunately, I think the blanket conclusion for all of these interpretations is that thinking too much about what has happened before can keep you from living well in the present and future.
I don’t know if I agree with this generalization.
Instead, I like the phrase “don’t trip over what’s behind you.” How simple and effective is that? The phrase “don’t live in the past” is so played out and I feel it hardly has any meaning to it anymore. But don’t trip over what’s behind you—that seems more specific to me.
I think this phrase is more forgiving, and more realistic. It welcomes you to look at what’s behind you, because how could you not? I realize that when people tell you not to live in the past that they are generally not saying “forget everything that ever happened to you before.” But like I said, I like the precision of the tripping metaphor.
I’m not necessarily going to go back and camp out on the path I’ve already walked, but I may look behind me once in a while to see how far I’ve come or to help me make decisions for the future.
Therapy and How Your Past Can Help You
It’s a delicate balance. I think that our past has a wealth of information that we can use to know ourselves, understand the people in our lives, and to help us move forward.
Perhaps it’s just the analytical part of my brain (the part that loved doing close readings in college English classes), but I really can’t do without visiting my past. I have a tendency to rely on things I’ve already learned or experienced to guide my way in my present and future, and maybe that’s a fault of mine.
But right now, I just have a really hard time viewing it that way. I believe I’ve mentioned before that I returned to therapy last month. Every other time I’ve been to therapy, it was because I had some major problem that was occurring in my life that I needed to work through. This time, I went back with the intention of working on some long-standing issues. Basically, I’m paying a lot of attention to my past.
I’ve definitely been tripping over what’s behind me. In the past 9 or so months, my moods have shifted. My therapist and I are working out why this has been happening, but things that used to make me worried, sad, scared, etc. make me angry now. I’m filled with bitterness. And I’m trying to figure out why this transition happened so I can get a better handle on my anger.
So I need to live in the past for a little while. Or, for at least one hour every week.
Finding the Healthy Balance
This being said, your past-living, like most things, is probably best done in moderation. Many people with mental health challenges can probably attest that your past, while a helpful tool in therapy, can be a stumbling block in everyday life.
To extend the metaphor, I think it’s important to know your path. When you retrace your steps to visit your past, don’t forget about the forward movement you’ve made since then. Leave yourself a breadcrumb trail so that you can get back to the end where you’re moving forward.
When you’re back in that earlier part of your path, really get to know your surroundings. Make note of any hazards so you can avoid them. If there’s a painful moment you don’t think it’s constructive to confront, recognize it as a tripping point so you don’t accidentally encounter it in any future visits. That way you’re aware of it, but it doesn’t get in your way.
Walking around your obstacles and revisiting the experiences you had when you first found them doesn’t have to lead to tripping. The more acquainted you get with these hurdles, the more likely you are to navigate them like an expert.
Back to Reality
Extended metaphor aside, don’t be afraid to dwell in your past a bit. I think the key to developing a healthy relationship with these revisits to past events is never losing sight of your present. And perhaps many people should only do this with the help of a professional or another type of support system. But overall, I don’t like that our society has labeled going back to your past as taboo or weak or dangerous. It’s one of those things in life that could go wrong if not done mindfully, but then again, aren’t most things in life that way?