The Ups and Downs of Living in the Past

The conventional wisdom about “living in the past” tells us the place is a toxic sinkhole to be visited sparingly, if ever.

I’d say this is often true, but not always. In my last post I described the value of “living in the present moment.”

Not today. Let’s look back. Start with the upside of spending time in

THE PAST

THE THERAPEUTIC USE OF THE PAST:

Psychodynamic psychotherapy allows us to observe repetitive patterns of our historical behavior, the better to recognize areas we need to change. History is grist for the treatment mill. The close examination of our life course permits the discovery of unresolved relationships and misfortunes. Historian George Santayana advised us all to keep hold of our bygone experience:

When experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

My friend Henry Fogel put the same message a different way: “I like to make new mistakes.” In other words, don’t replicate the old ones.

When we recall prior examples of resilience under the duress of a painful present, we can also boost our confidence. Knowing we came through earlier challenges reminds us of what enabled our survival and recovery. Those capacities are likely still within us.

POSITIVE REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST: 

The past can be a sweet reminder of loving relatives and friends, triumphant moments, hurdles surmounted, and what has been good about life. In those who are middle-aged and beyond, remembering the youthful beauty of your sweetheart can spark continuing attachment, even though you and your love no longer resemble springtime flowers. In the elderly or the infirm, positive memories sustain one in the present, especially when a limit exists now on what might be experienced and accomplished. Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXX ends this way:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

THE NEED FOR A COHERENT STORY: 

Most people value their own story to make sense of the life they are currently living. It binds them to those with whom they have marched together through time. It tells them what they valued and what remains of importance. No wonder amnesia sufferers are so distressed. Their self-definition has been lost along with their story.

One cannot doubt, however, that the past can resemble the sinkhole mentioned earlier, if used to foreclose present opportunities. What is the downside of living too much in the long ago?

VICTIMHOOD IN SERVICE OF THE EGO:

A focus on the past allows some people to claim a status they would be unable to achieve in the present. I treated a woman of about 40, disfavored by nature and fate. Testing revealed her intellectual limits. She was neither physically attractive nor graceful. Worse still, her early life had been one of abuse, neglect, and rejection. Life’s unfairness to her historical-self was what she focused on, to the point of telling new acquaintances of her bad luck soon after meeting them. They fled, thus further confirming her sense of unique disadvantage.

One day I questioned her about the extremity of her beliefs. After once again acknowledging how fortune’s wheel had been unkind, I asked if she thought perhaps there were also others who met similar tragedy. “No.” What about in the history of the world? “No.” Not even Jesus or victims of genocide or torture? “No.”

In coming to grips with this, I wondered what advantage she found in the belief she was the most unfortunate person ever. I concluded this attitude allowed her to claim a distinction she could not otherwise attain. In effect, she prided herself on her disadvantage. Such a manner of living caused her to continue pleading her case with every new acquaintance, always failing to obtain the friendship and validation she wanted. In her own way, she gave it to herself in the ever-present litany of woe she called up daily. Her ego was thus bolstered.

AVOIDANCE:

Yesterday may appear safer than today or tomorrow. Whatever happened at a distance tends to be less acute. The past will not change and holds no surprises. Even if it is a dark place, no new demons arise. You know the territory. Indeed, one becomes quasi-friends with those demons. Stay put, some people think. They rationalize their stasis as a wise avoidance of fresh pain and heartbreak, humiliation and failure.

Psychotherapy helps a willing client recognize the cost of such an escape into yesterday, thus encouraging a return to human contact in spite of the risk we always face in our effort to live full lives and attain happiness.

POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS:

This condition is not a voluntary choice. One who has witnessed a murder or shocking death, or been threatened with the same, can be triggered by reminders of the event into a visceral return to tragedy, sometimes unable to tell past from present. They then re-experience the awfulness and are re-traumatized.

The worst example known to me of such repeated reliving – due to brain damage and not PTSD – was an elderly women about whom I heard the following. Her memory was so compromised that each morning she awoke believing her long-deceased husband was alive, and proceeded to search for him in desperation. The nursing home staff then had to inform her of his death. Thereby she was newly stricken every day. To the good, actual PTSD can be treated, as this woman’s condition could not.

TREATMENT STUCK IN THE PAST: 

Significant focus on the past is a necessary part of many psychotherapies. Still-tender wounds and long-nursed grudges must be grieved. How much your history remains a central topic is up to you and your therapist. At some point life has to be lived, because we cannot repurchase our yesterdays. Cognitive behavioral therapies try not to delay such a reentry into life. Remember, there is always more self-examination possible, in or out of therapy. Even Socrates – the man who said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” also lived his life.

As Kierkegaard wrote, “Life is understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” No one ever understands everything about himself, past or present, including this writer.

Understanding is but one part of human existence. The driver’s seat in the vehicle of life faces forward, just behind the windshield and steering wheel. Rearview mirrors are less prominent. The rules of the road tell us to consult the latter only on occasion.

The second image is Brassai’s 1936 photo, Les Escaliers de Montmartre. The following photo was captured by  Alfred Stieglitz in 1894. It is called Venetian Canal and was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

12 thoughts on “The Ups and Downs of Living in the Past

  1. I am a product of my past, living in my present, with hope for the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Betty. In the next few weeks I’ll address our hope for the future and the challenge of managing that hope.

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  2. Wow! This is an excellent article, Dr. Stein…one I surely can relate to when my anxiety is triggered and kicks into high gear, which causes me to replay the old tapes. Since I practice CBT, I am copying this article and saving it to my notes to refer to when I have the “what ifs” and “I wonder’” which causes me to reflect upon my difficult upbringing. This will be another tool in my tool shed. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I like this a lot: “At some point life has to be lived, because we cannot repurchase our yesterdays.”

    The challenge is, when the yesterdays plant themselves right in the path of the life we are trying to live, and we have to find a way to make space for both.

    I’ve tried both extremes – totally denying the existence of the yesterdays, or even just their impact, and being consumed by them. Neither works. The only solution I can see is to find a way for them to peacefully coexist.

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  4. drgeraldstein

    Oscar Wilde said it better than I and said it first, “No man is rich enough to buy back his past.” Yes, making space and favoring one part over the other at the best time is the challenge. Thanks for your comment, defraggingme.

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  5. Dr. Stein, thanks for the reminder of the positive aspects of remembering our past. When I set out to write my first novel, I was driven by a need to understand why I had been abandoned: by the nuns (Guyana), my husband (Brazil), and then my mother (USA). In the course of exploring the life of my protagonist, Richard Cheong, set in Guyana during the period 1950-1970, I realized that my abandonment was the result of failed expectations.

    But, as you also point out, remembering the past does come with the negative aspects. I have difficulty in starting my next writing project to be set in Brazil. The trauma of raising my sons alone in Brazil still haunts me.

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    • drgeraldstein

      You are remarkable in your resilience and persistence, Rosaliene, so I expect you will find a way to complete the project. Indeed, it might turn out to be a therapeutic task as well as an artistic one. Good luck.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Dr. Stein, very apropos read for me. Trying times lately. PTSD disability added MDD-recurrent and have gone through 90+ shock treatments. But now just got “suspended” by UCSD from receiving ECT due to my PTSD. One side bene of ECT is it makes *many* more vague memories of the past. It is difficult to look toward any future when pragmatically you see you have none. 😦

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    • drgeraldstein

      Very sorry, Harry. I hope UCSD will reconsider. Best wishes with this. You are one of the good guys and we need you around.

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  7. Out of the blue my past came back to haunt me. I am in my mid 50’s and was having a meltdown. One by one unpleasant scenarios that I felt were dealt with came tumbling. Is this a midlife crisis I asked? Fortunately I sought therapy. I was never one to live in the past,so why now? I have risen above it,and am much stronger for it. Everyone should see a therapist. Remarkable

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