How does regretting the past hinder your future?

How does regretting the past hinder your future?

At work or on the street we can often meet people who are always dissatisfied with everything and say, “Everything was better before”. To be honest, I belonged to this category myself not so long ago. I was nostalgic for the carefree youth, easy work, lack of restrictions because of covid-19 and much more.

However, I realized that perpetually resenting the present and praising the past was counter-productive and even negative for me. Because setting myself up in this way I was harming my future.

Why do we so often hear people say: “Everything was better before”? In fact, it’s not that life circumstances, society, politics, and the economy have changed drastically… The reason is that our lives don’t stand still, they are constantly changing, but the people who reason that way haven’t changed. That is, they have “left” themselves to live in the past time instead of the present. They have left themselves to live in a time that is forever gone.

Recently I was standing in line at the post office, and a very elderly woman joined her. She found an appreciative listener in one of the men and told him many things. But one thing really stood out: “It used to be good. Everybody was afraid. They obeyed.”

It’s hard to share the excitement of a time when everyone was afraid, because it’s easy to understand what the fears were about. However, after the phrase “It used to be better,” there are often many questions and various “yes, buts. For example: in the USSR or the GDR, university graduates were given jobs – yes, but you could be thrown anywhere by assignment.

But the main question is: What makes people go back in time and time again, think it was better there, and ignore any arguments that disprove it?

The reasons for the pathological fixation of people on the past

1. Dissatisfaction with present life

One of the most common reasons for looking back is frustration with the present life and disbelief in the possibility of it’s change.

For example, someone who considers his college years to be the best of his life is probably pining for his inner state. For the feeling of freedom he experienced, for the opportunity to behave in the way he really wants to. As people age, they suppress their emotions, their true desires more, lose the ease and joy of life, and try to be too serious. Those who don’t find a way to understand themselves, to connect with their inner child and express themselves the way they want to express themselves, their only choice is to remember a time when they gave themselves permission to behave freely.

In the language of “vanilla” social media quotes, people love not a specific period, but what they were like at that time.

When our psyche becomes unbearable, psychological defenses come to the rescue. In this case there is an idealization of the past and a devaluation of the present.

The difficulty of this state and the way out of it is that reality can be quite harsh, and the past years are perceived as cloudless. Such a cognitive distortion as “pink retrospection” is at work here. And it is clear from the name what it means: a person perceives the events of his life in a more positive way than when he actually experienced them. Negative thoughts and emotions are erased, leaving positive memories. A person begins to perceive the past in a biased way and believes that everything used to be better.

2. Inability to adapt to new conditions

Human life is long enough, and the world changes a great deal during that time. In addition to global events, there are many small events that affect only specific people. And not all of them are easy to accept and endure. Some do not cope with the collapse of the socialist regime, some with quarantine from covid-19, some with separation or retirement.

The inability to accept reality as it is and to process his feelings about it causes the person to drain his anxiety into endless mental gumming about the past. In parallel, he shifts his focus to external circumstances and forgets that the responsibility for his life and personal happiness lies with him, not with the place or time in which he lives.

Generally speaking, when change occurs, people behave like the two frogs in the famous parable, when both frogs get into a pot of sour cream, which begins to thicken quickly. Only one accepts the terms of the game, floundering to the last, until she knocks the lump of butter off with her feet and jumps out. The other drowns in memories.

The problem is that most people find it much easier to accept the second option – to give up. For example, many older people don’t want to master computers and gadgets (even though it will help them stay competitive in the job market), instead they lament to younger people how wonderful it was without them. That life went wrong, the easiest way to blame the times.

A frequent nostalgia for childhood and adolescence is associated with an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s life. It was a carefree time, when problems were few and solved by others. It may not have been a better time, but it was certainly an easier one.

Most often a person gets stuck where he sees himself able to cope with all difficulties, in a resourceful state, when everything around him is arranged so that he can easily realize his needs. This means that in the present the person does not have this resource. More precisely, he does not feel it.

3. Trying to escape from reality

With awareness of the past, everything is more or less clear. But there are situations in which a person idealizes an era with which he or she simply could not become acquainted because of his or her age. It is especially funny to hear this from young girls and guys who have read all kinds of nonsense in social networks and now argue with you that in past mens be healthier, women gave birth to 15 children in a field, there were no divorces, sugar was sweeter, the grass was greener, the water was wetter, etc. 🙂

It is a longing for a world that never existed, a world of illusion. One creates one’s own space in one’s head and places it in an era or territory that seems appropriate. Except that it has little to do with reality. Often it is enough to dig shallowly to refute his delusions with references to statistics and research. True, it is unlikely to help.

We all have a positive idea of ourselves that I am (in some way) good. If not handsome, then at least smart. If not rich, at least honest. When a person faces disappointment in himself (he could not earn money, he is not successful with the opposite gender) his psyche faces a dilemma: to admit that he is not good enough, or to consider the world around him as such.

Of course, the easiest way to explain one’s failures is to say that this world is wrong. If so, when has it ever been right? And one begins to idealize a period, to exaggerate the positives and ignore the negatives. Or even artificially screw the “facts” he needs to a certain era. He is deluded sincerely, because his psyche is servile in hiding from his consciousness the details that contradict his idealization.

How to escape from the “clutches” of the past?

First, you should realize what is an illusion and what is not, as well as the reasons for it. Sometimes looking back on the past helps people get through some difficult moments. Illusions give a kind of deformed version of hope that reality really can be better.

When life is full of problems and one is overworked and unhappy, one finds no resource in the present. Then the brain pulls these resource states from past experiences, returning to happy memories. It is impossible for a person to live in the knowledge that everything is bad, always and everywhere. One needs a drop of hope that life is good after all, just not here and not now.

You should not fall into this trap. Living in illusions does not solve problems, but only increases your personal gap between the past and the present.

Second tip: Take off the “rose-colored glasses”. Accept the present as it is, whether you like it or not. There is, alas, no other way to solve this problem. Imagine that you have poured wax on your body, and now you are pulling off the band-aid. It hurts, but the pain is short-lived and will subside immediately.

As for the past and memories. The past is an important part of life, and one should not give it up, of course. But if one fixes oneself in it, it has a bad effect on the future. Why? Because our future depends on the efforts we make in the present.

Accept the fact that “the past is in the past” and cannot be return. But you can improve your present and your future, you can make them better than your past if you put in the effort.

Get an education, change your profession (maybe your city), take responsibility for your life. Use your past correctly: as a source of knowledge, experience and resource, not as a way to run away from problems. Regretting your lost time won’t improve your life, your actions will.

There is no need to shift responsibility for your life and failures to others, you are the only CEO of your person. Filling life with meaning is the task of the person himself, no one will do it for him better.


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