Many of us tend to rewrite our history so today can’t compete. You might do this with relationships (“I had a blast with [insert terrible ex]”), jobs (“Those monotonous work meetings gave me time to brainstorm killer raps”), or pre-pandemic life (“My jam-packed [exhausting] social calendar made me feel alive!”).
We insist the grass was greener back in the day, zeroing in on the good memories, erasing the bad ones, and devaluing the positive aspects of our current lives in the process. Meanwhile, we’ll likely long for today in the near future.
Some psychologists refer to this happification of our history as “rosy retrospection.” In addiction recovery communities, romanticizing the past is sometimes called “euphoric recall,” which the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration describes as “remembering only the pleasures associated with stimulant use and not the adverse consequences.”
Whatever the term, during my twenties, I was the king of it. At 20, I wished I was chugging from red Solo cups beside a keg with my buds from high school. At 22, I kicked myself for leaving the college I dropped out of at 20 to move back home. At 24, I missed my ex-girlfriend, who I had dated during my early 20s. I yearned for whomever and whatever wasn’t in my life anymore.
As distressing as my longing for the past was at the time, I now see that it served a purpose. “We are inundated with millions of bits of information throughout our day, so to make sense of all that data, we rely on shortcuts,” Nikki Coleman, PhD, a Houston-based therapist who specializes in interpersonal relationships and identity, tells SELF.
And one such shortcut your brain may take, research shows, is zipping right to positive memories while deflating negative ones. “It would require a lot of cognitive energy for us to relive all of the negativity, threat, and fear, and so we just go, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad,’” Dr. Coleman says.
One study from 2019 showed that this “fading affect bias,” where bad memories vanish quicker than good ones, was associated with higher grit, defined by the researchers as “psychological well-being and perseverance.” “People often romanticize the past because the truth is painful,” Britt Frank, LSCSW, a psychotherapist and the author of The Science of Stuck: Breaking Through Inertia to Find Your Path Forward, tells SELF. “It’s a form of emotional numbing.”
Looking back on your memories fondly can be comforting and fun, but if it makes you feel terrible about your current life, it might be worth adjusting your perspective. Here’s some advice from experts on how to avoid getting lost in rose-tinted nostalgia, so you can judge your past—and present—fairly.
Contaminate the fantasy.
When you reminisce about the good times, recognize that you might not be viewing them accurately, says Frank. She recommends asking yourself a series of questions to “contaminate the fantasy,” a phrase some therapists and counsellors use to describe the practice of thinking through the outcomes of your actions.
To help ensure you’re not painting a distorted picture of the past, Frank suggests “getting in the habit of asking yourself, ‘How true is the story I’m telling myself?’”
A quick way to find out the answer? Give your memories a reality check by balancing the positive with the negative—or maybe the neutral. If you’re reminiscing over a “perfect” past relationship, say, Frank recommends identifying (out loud or in a journal) five things about it that weren’t exactly the stuff of romance novels.
Ditto for past “dream” jobs, or a city you lived in and left for valid reasons. The goal, she says, isn’t to dwell on negativity but to balance the good memories with the not-so-good (or the average) so you have a clearer picture of what actually occurred. That way, you’re less likely to romanticize the past—and feel like the present doesn’t measure up as a result.
Recognize what you’re really missing.
Look at your seemingly dreamy memories and ask yourself what, exactly, you miss about those times. “Maybe you felt loved or maybe you felt excited about what you were doing,” Nancy Colier, LCSW, author of Can’t Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination, tells SELF. Identifying the roots of your nostalgia may help you to recreate similar situations that can bring you some of the same joyful feelings you’re longing for.
For example, if you’re craving the sense of community you felt when you and your coworkers used to hit up the local pub every Thursday after work, maybe you can create a similar meetup at your new job. Or if you’re reminiscing about the musty smell of newsprint in the neighbourhood comic shop you frequented as a preteen, schedule some time to re-read old favourites.
Of course, you may not be able to recreate the exact same circumstances from your past—due to age, new responsibilities, or the loss of a person or pet, for example. In those cases, Colier recommends giving yourself compassion for the “process of change and loss of identity” that’s part of the human experience. “Maybe you can’t go to college and run that triathlon anymore,” she says. “This human journey is filled with fluidity and loss, and change is the only constant.”
Simply recognizing that and acknowledging the beauty of the past can help you stay connected to it—and bring you peace. “You might think, ‘Wow, what a time,’ and just because I can’t live it now doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist within me,’” she says.
Don’t force gratitude.
Taking inventory of the things you’re grateful for may lead to mental health benefits like reduced stress and better sleep, as SELF previously reported. But it can be difficult to foster gratitude when your situation is, in fact, pretty terrible. Maybe your past really was much better: You lived most of your life in perfect health, say, and are suddenly facing a major illness, or you lost a loved one and your world felt better with them in it.
In that case, coming to terms with the fact that the present is uncomfortable is a better strategy than forcing yourself to see some “silver lining,” Frank says. This type of denial is a form of toxic positivity that will only invalidate your very real pain and keep you stuck, she adds.
If you’re trapped in a more-positive past because your present reality is trash, instead of doing a daily gratitude list, Frank suggests trying to accept that today may be difficult, while also acknowledging it won’t last forever. “Joy will come again,” she says. “But if you try to make yourself feel joy, you’re not going to get there.” Conversely, if you go easy on yourself and feel all of your feelings, you’re more likely to heal and move forward, she adds.
Bring yourself into the moment.
One way to get unstuck in the past is to firmly plant yourself in the present through mindfulness, says Coleman. Formal meditation is one way to do that, but if meditating just isn’t your thing, you can experiment with alternative methods. You might try a guided journal exercise, for example, or just be more mindful while you eat, taking your time and paying attention to sensations and flavours.
Coleman also recommends trying the five-senses grounding technique whenever you find yourself daydreaming about your self-perceived better days. To do this exercise, you take about five minutes to “go through each of the senses, asking yourself ‘What do I feel?’ ‘What do I see?’ ‘What do I hear? ‘What do I smell?’ and ‘What do I taste?’” By dialing into your environment in this way, you’re essentially “training your brain to be in the present moment,” Coleman says. “It’s kind of like creating a blank slate.” Like other mindfulness practices, this technique can help you shift your focus from your past (or future) to what’s right in front of you, so you can be fully present—for your friends, your family, your job, your passions.
Personally, my perspective changed when I hit my mid-thirties. I burned out at a social work gig that I stayed at for a decade because I didn’t believe I could do anything better. I stopped dwelling on the past and began focusing on how I could change the present. I started taking one class at a time to get a degree that would lead me to my dream job, and year by year I transitioned careers.
One day, I looked up and loved what I was doing—the past couldn’t compete. I also became a dad, and though my days became somewhat monotonous and filled with endless diaper changes, my son would snooze on my chest and as I took in those moments, I’d feel such love.
Time was suddenly zooming by, and I wanted nothing but to be exactly where I was. There was no time like the present.
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