Our past shapes our present and helps us identify who we are and where we are headed. So, it’s natural to use our past experiences as a point of reference for our current situation. The choices we make for ourselves today are often influenced by our past. If we are using healthy judgment to guide our choices, then past regrets, mistakes, and pain are used as markers for what we do not want in our lives. However for some, the past is not seen as a place of reflection but as a destination. For those who struggle with letting go of past pain or regret, they can feel trapped by their situation and unable to move forward in their lives. Feeling unable to let go of the past can lead to clinical depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or even suicide.
Pain has a way of making us feel stuck. In times of emotional pain, we may find ourselves thinking back to when we felt happier which can help motivate us in the present. For example, if in the past we were proud of an accomplishment we achieved, thinking of our past success can help motivate us in achieving new successes now. Referencing our past positive experiences can be a healthy option for setting goals or in building optimal habits as we focus on our future. While a little reflection can be healthy and foster creativity, too much reflection or ruminating on past negative experiences can drift into obsession and lead to feeling stuck.
Pain, Regret, and PTSD
Our past experiences can affect our current mindset and our choices in how we interpret our lives. If pain or trauma has been experienced in our past, it can impact how we view our current circumstances or even prevent us from living in the present. Existing research suggests how past-negative experiences are often associated with increased incidences of trait anxiety, depression, impulsivity, low self-esteem and poor choices. For example, if we have suffered betrayal from a loved one in a romantic or familial relationship, we may re-live the traumatic experience as it replays in our mind. Certain smells, foods, places or songs may “trigger” re-experiencing the pain, which often results in trying to push away the intrusive thoughts and feelings. This can lead to other symptoms including social isolation, distrust in others, self-sabotaging behavior and an inability to move ahead in our lives (i.e., living in the past).
Warning Signs of Living in the Past:
- Conversations seem to revert back to certain times, certain people, or certain situations.
- You are attracted to, or attract, the same type of people that cause you pain.
- Disagreements often surround past arguments.
- Easily bored or frustrated.
- Comparing your current situation to previous ones.
- Prior trauma or painful events replay in your mind.
- Self-sabotaging behavior.
- Emotional triggers that cause you to think about people or situations from the past.
- Relationships are used to fill a void or to prevent being alone with your thoughts.
- “Waiting for the other shoe to drop” — expecting something bad to happen.
- Feeling anxious or acting impulsively.
- Experiencing regret over impulsive choices.
- All or nothing thinking about new people or new experiences.
- Avoidance of new people or new experiences.
Many times, the hallmark of living in the past is a pattern of self-sabotaging behavior that reinforces reliving past traumatic events. What makes behavior self-sabotaging is how it negatively affects the person in its aftermath. Self-sabotaging behavior usually starts out as a way to reduce or avoid unpleasant feelings, such as when re-experiencing something painful. In an attempt to push away intrusive thoughts or vulnerable emotions, things like self-medicating, escape/avoidant behaviors, or other unhealthy patterns can start. For example, a history of being abandoned earlier in life can play out in abandoning partners or friends, or lashing out at them if feeling emotionally vulnerable. This pattern can lead to a history of unhealthy relationships and a toxic cycle that perpetuates trying to avoid emotional triggers through self-sabotaging behavior.
How to Heal From the Past
Healing from past pain or traumatic experiences is not something that happens overnight. It is a process that requires patience, dedication and a commitment to change. Humans are wired for wanting to feel good and to minimize feeling bad, which often triggers self-sabotaging behavior in an attempt to avoid pain. When we experience a painful event such as betrayal or other traumatic experiences, it can rewire us for self-preservation. We may live in “fight or flight” mode, constantly anticipating more pain in our lives which can be unconsciously welcomed through our actions.
Tips for learning to live in the present:
- Establish boundaries. This can mean something different for everyone, but the main point is to give yourself time to heal and to move ahead at your own pace. For many, establishing boundaries may include being more selective on who we welcome into our lives and who we dismiss. With boundaries, consistency is key in helping let go of the past and living in the present.
- Acceptance. The past is a done-deal. We can’t change it. And being stuck in the past is only hurting our potential in the present. By accepting that the past is over, it allows us to grieve and to release the pain that we may have been carrying with us. Be honest with yourself in your acceptance and take the time you need to grieve.
- Practice Mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness is about teaching ourselves how to stay in the present and to calm our mind when experiencing emotional triggers. Research supports the use of mindfulness as part of a comprehensive program in healing from trauma, depression or PTSD.
- Have a Reset Button. We are human, and that means we are perfectly imperfect. As with any new skill, they take time to develop and master. Be kind with yourself if you slip up or find yourself reliving the past or reverting back to old behavior patterns. Use the reset button to help you gauge where you are in your personal development.
- Disconnect. Balance is key when working on self-improvement. Being okay with disconnecting from social media or from friends or family for a while as you work on healing is about self-care. When we are alone, we are able to get to know ourselves and give ourselves the attention and love we need to stop living in the past.
Donald, J., et al. (2016). Daily stress and the benefits of mindfulness. Journal of Research in Personality, 23 (1), 30-37.
Gacs, B., et al. (2020). Time perspectives and pain: Negative time perspective profile predicts elevated vulnerability to pain. Personality and Individual Differences, 153, 1-6.