Are Your Best Days Really Behind You? How Success Can Haunt You

Adult wearing pink top with long hair pulled back looks out window into fields and trees, thoughtful expression on faceA 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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  • Jayden

    Jayden

    August 30th, 2017 at 2:21 PM

    I might have a little bit of a different scenario but whereas I was a very successful student throughout high school and college I haven’t been that great so far in the business world. I have a job, but it’s basically entry level with no real hope of moving up. I make barely enough to pay my rent and remember the good times when I always had money in the bank and a meal plan to eat on. I am happy to have my degree but I wonder if this is all there is to look forward to now.

  • Melissa Stringer

    Melissa Stringer

    August 31st, 2017 at 2:51 PM

    Jayden,
    I think the example you shared definitely relates to the content of the article. It’s sounds as if challenging circumstances has you reflecting on less stressful times. I think for many the transition from college to entry level jobs is a difficult one. It certainly was for me, too! However, we often have more control over the length and duration of certain chapters of our lives than we think. Ruminating about the past isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it’s used as a compass to point us in a more meaningful direction. It can serve as a barrier, though, in clouding our ability to see things we could work on changing to improve our current circumstances. I wish you all the best and would encourage you reach out to a therapist to evaluate different steps you could possibly take to bring a higher level of satisfaction to your life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  • Jennifer S.

    Jennifer S.

    August 31st, 2017 at 9:55 AM

    I totally relate to this article. Some of it describes thoughts that I repetitively had before I realized that you can’t make the present “good” while you are busy looking back at your past. Some of the article describes behaviors I’ve recognized in others. Those are the narcissist you mentioned who are hard to form and almost impossible to maintain relationships with. I thank God daily that I have overcome those thoughts and depression. I believe more people go through this than not. I believe this article will help many who can relate.
    Great job, Melissa!! You are not only beautiful (inside and out), but smart!
    Best Wishes,
    Jennifer

  • Melissa Stringer

    Melissa Stringer

    August 31st, 2017 at 3:01 PM

    Jennifer,
    It’s great to hear this content resonated with you. I agree, I think we’ve all been there and it’s a normal human experience to reflect on our past and get stuck there sometimes. It’s wonderful you were able to interrupt this pattern within yourself and create a life you can feel more grounded and present in. Thank you very much for the kind words, and for taking the time to share your experience :)

  • bowen

    bowen

    August 31st, 2017 at 11:06 AM

    You have to commit to living in the present, the here and now. Because you can’t go back to the past and you can’t predict the future.

  • Melissa Stringer

    Melissa Stringer

    August 31st, 2017 at 3:05 PM

    Bowen,
    Well said, and I couldn’t agree more. Living in the present is indeed a commitment and takes effort. Learning to accept what we can’t control is one of the hardest life lessons, I believe. Thanks for sharing your insight.

  • Maria H

    Maria H

    September 4th, 2017 at 6:22 AM

    Jeez if I live like all of the best of times are far behind me then why should that give me any motivation to do anything new and creative with my life? If that is the mindset that I am living in then it would seem worthless to even try anything new because it would never be able to measure up to that which is part of the past.

    I do not personally choose to live this way, because I know that the best is still yet to come, but yes, I see those who can never quite live up to those glory days and they struggle as a result of thinking that there will never be anything like that for them again.

  • Emilia

    Emilia

    September 5th, 2017 at 2:44 PM

    Why not use it as a motivator instead?

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