Everyone has their moments when they can get stuck on a memory that bothers them. Just remember one of those nights where you’re lying in your bed, hoping to fall asleep while every embarrassing moment in your life seems to play by. Unfortunately to quite some people, being reminded of unpleasant occurrences seems to be a reoccurring ordeal. How do you stop living in the past? I did some research I would like to share with you.
I too am one of those people who finds more and less pleasurable reminders in the simplest things and tasks. But let me start off by saying that I think not everything about “living in the past” is per definition something undesirable. For one I can remember the song that was playing when I shared a frantic yet clumsy teenage kiss on the backseat of a car, and I still get butterflies every time I hear it. I have vivid childhood memories that can bring a smile to my face, and make me feel grateful for the people who loved me while I was growing up. They can be so powerful that they change my mood entirely, making me experience a nostalgic bliss in which I can relish for hours on end.
People who have a tendency to have a strong connection with their past can rehash conversations easily. Particular smells, views, words and moments can bring them back to a happy and less happy memories in the blink of an eye. But when you start to notice your unpleasant memories can have a prominent effect in the present time, it might be smart to take a moment to look what’s going on.
Only today I was peeling an apple for breakfast and I was reminded of my college internship, which was all but friendly and trustworthy. A week in I made the choice to sit my 6 months out, rather than quitting and being forced to graduate at a later date. That half a year was stressful and draining, and thinking about that period in my life makes me relive those feelings of sadness, anger and feeling mistreated. Peeling an apple on a sunny morning changed to a moment of dark melancholy at my kitchen counter-top.
I finished the internship I’m speaking of some 10 years ago. Although it was a hard pill to swallow I had a tremendous amount of support from my school, who in fact made sure they would never be affiliated to said company again. I wasn’t able to graduate cum laude like I hoped I would, but that never held me back from achieving in my working life.
So why am I still bothered by something that happened 10 years ago, which has no essential effect on the present?
I guess this is a question a lot of people who tend to live in the past ask themselves. Naturally my internship fades into the far (far, far) distance compared to other examples we can be burdened with, like child abuse, trauma and other unsolved past experiences. My point is that whatever memories still bother us, can still color our sunny mornings today.
So how do we stop living in the past?
Method 1: By living in the present
When I began my research there was one obvious answer that every other article threw in my face. “By living in the present”. It felt like a mockery to get such a simple answer to a difficult question. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized it’s a large portion of the truth. By wallowing in our past, albeit pleasant or painful, we’re forgetting to look what is happening in our lives right now. Which in the end, is all the more important. We can influence what’s happening to us right now, but we can’t change what has happened to us already.
Method 2: By acknowledging your painful memories
Despite our tendencies to leave unpleasant memories on the shelf, it’s important to make sure you accept them for what they are. It’s not necessary to dig them up, but when they do show their face, make sure to acknowledge them. If something reminds you of a traumatic event or triggers strong emotions, embrace them rather than tugging them away. That way you will process your problems, rather than leaving them unattended and festering in the back of your mind.
Method 3: By understanding how unpleasant memories affect our brain
Particularly tense or painful experiences can affect our neurological chemistry. Our brain is hard-wired to try and prevent having a bad thing happen to us twice, so you can find yourself stressed or scared when you land in particular situations. This takes time to wear off, so make sure to allow yourself some room to heal. Severe traumatic stress is even considered to have lasting changes in our brain. For example people who suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) lose the ability to discriminate between the past and present, which makes it easier for them to be triggered by particular external stimuli. And people who suffer from childhood trauma have an increased risk to develop emotional trauma in the future.
Method 4: By accepting you can not change the past
No matter how many time you spend revisiting the past, you simply can not change it. Rather than constantly reliving painful moments, realize that you are now probably in an entirely different situation. Don’t allow your present to become a repetition of your past by focusing on what has been bad, rather than what is good right now.
Method 5: By forgiving those who have done you wrong
This is a method you’ll either love or hate, and if you decide to go for it it will surely take you some effort. Oprah Winfrey has preached it in her talkshow and practiced it herself: She recovered from her childhood ordeals (among which long-time sexual abuse) by forgiving rather than holding grudges*. Chad Fletcher, also victim of sexual abuse, felt forgiving his father was a powerful tool to let his resentment pass.
* Oprah herself presses that forgiveness doesn’t equal acceptance. It rather means accepting that something bad has happened to you. I quote – “Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different” (which brings us right back to Method 1 and 4).
Do you feel you live in the past?