A primary focus of therapy is healing from past traumas and making attempts to improve the parts of ourselves we find unsatisfactory. There’s clearly a need to address these issues to move toward a more fulfilling life. But have you ever considered that reliving past successes could create a similarly negative impact?
The opposite of replaying a terrifying or life-threatening event would be the fixation on a better time in an individual’s life. Ironically, I’ve observed this type of over-attachment to create nearly as many barriers as a trauma. Instead of being haunted by nightmares and flashbacks commonly associated with trauma, individuals with this type of fixation exist in a persistent state of longing to repeat or restore what once was. This results in a distracted way of showing up to the present moment and often creates a warped sense of reality.
These individuals may continually revisit a fixed place in the past. On the surface, becoming engrossed with a perceived positive memory or time doesn’t seem particularly risky. However, when this type of fixation goes beyond nostalgia, it can create the illusion the present is not as worthwhile. The resulting emotions may include shame, sadness, anxiety, and a sense of hopelessness.
Being overly fused with an idealized past frequently manifests as depression. The archetypal movie character is the aging athlete whose “glory days” are long gone. Substance use or some other maladaptive form of coping is frequently used in an attempt to ease the discomfort of being separated from the “golden era” of one’s life. For many, a telltale expression often used when referring to a romanticized past are phrases such as “those were the good old days” or “life was so much easier back then.”
Whether it’s thinking too highly of yourself or obsessively replaying the highlight reels of your life, these mind-sets both serve to rob you of the potential to create a more meaningful existence. In comparison to trauma processing, it’s easy to miss this more subtle, yet still harmful, way of relating to the past.
I can relate to this type of rumination, especially when present circumstances feel especially challenging. I occasionally find myself reflecting on memories of childhood, high school, or college. Those times are associated with less pressure, reduced responsibility, and fewer obligations. But if I’m being honest, those chapters all had a unique set of hardships that can too easily be glossed over without careful introspection.
The truth is every segment of our lives comes with its own set of distinct problems and challenges. Life ebbs and flows, vacillating between times of difficulty and times of peace or triumph. However, this idea of having an expiration date for achieving the best version of yourself or your life can be extremely limiting. It generates a perception and attitude you can never measure up to what once was or who you once were, therefore why try to create meaning and purpose in the present?
This same concept can be extended to the overemphasizing of one’s positive attributes, often casually referred to as narcissism. An inflated sense of self may seemingly be a better alternative than a devalued sense of self, but both create barriers for growth. Those with grandiose views of self do not see the need for self-improvement, severely limiting their ability to accurately process reality. They also generally lack empathy for others, which has a high cost in terms of building deep and authentic relationships.
Whether it’s thinking too highly of yourself or obsessively replaying the highlight reels of your life, these mind-sets both serve to rob you of the potential to create a more meaningful existence. In comparison to trauma processing, it’s easy to miss this more subtle, yet still harmful, way of relating to the past. Striking a balance between being able to reflect on fond memories and shifting attention back to the present is key. Cultivating the ability to hold both your strengths and your flaws lightly is more workable than overidentifying with either.
If you feel stuck in the past and unable to find meaning or purpose, I encourage you to process this with a mental health professional.
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