So often, we’re so tempted to revisit the past…and we do so in ways that chip away at our ability to function in the present.
Our brains have the imaginative capacity to envision other times and other places, and very often we use that capability to revisit times and places that we’ve been and experienced.
Sometimes, we do this to revisit pleasant or positively meaningful times and places from our past. We remember people, places, and things that make us feel good, and reconnect us to values goals that matter.
Other times, however, we’re drawn back to people, places, and things that can only have a negative, demotivating, anxiety-producing impact. We use our imaginative capabilities to induce feelings of regret, sadness, and pain.
It would seem to make sense to limit our exposure to these memories— memories that do little but make us feel terrible. But for some reason, we find ourselves going back there, again and again— and feeling those terrible feelings, again and again.
For some people, it doesn’t even feel like a choice. It feels as if they are pulled back to bad feelings and moments in their lives quite involuntarily…and they fervently wish they could stop their brains from revisiting those times, places, and people.
Why does our brain yank us back there, when we KNOW all that exists back there is pain?
Why does our brain yank us back there, when we KNOW that the past has little or nothing to do with the present moment we’re trying to savor, or the future we’re trying to create?
There are a variety of neuropsychological reasons why our brains tend to use the capacity to visualize and imagine in ways that cause us pain, but the good news is: we can, in fact, take charge of our focus and limit the extent to which our minds’ eye goes to the past.
We can take control over what we see on the movie screens of our minds.
If, that is, we are willing to give up the fantasy of somehow changing the past.
If we admit that we can never have a better past.
If we are ready, truly ready, to let the past go…which is often harder than it sounds.
Why is it hard to let the past go? It is, after all, past. It’s not like we can change it, no matter how hard we try.
Part of us knows that very well. We are not dumb or childish. We know that no matter how many times we replay the past, the ending will always be the same. The past is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book.
But there’s another part of us— usually a younger part— that really thinks, really believes, that if we replay the past enough, maybe we can alter the details. It’s the same child-like part of us that watches, say, the movie “Titanic” with baited breath, hoping that maybe THIS time the characters make different decisions to avoid the ship’s inevitable fate.
To truly accept that the past is the past— to truly accept that there is no changing the past, no matter how hard we want to or how hard we try— represents a loss.
To radically accept the past is the past is to let ourselves in for some serious mourning.
Accepting that the past is the past means we must grieve for the “us” we might have been, once upon a time, with different choices.
To accept that the past is the past means mourning for the sense of possibility that we once had about what subsequent years may have held for us.
To accept the past is the past means accepting that things might not have gone the way we would have preferred things go.
To accept the past is the past means allowing ourselves to feel what we feel about it— sad, angry, amazed— while at the same time accepting that there is nothing to do about those feelings but to FEEL them.
We have a really, really hard time FEELING feelings. We always want to DO something about those feelings.
Accepting the past is the past doesn’t allow us the opportunity to DO anything about it. We have to see what we see, now what we know…and accept what IS.
That’s a tall order, emotionally.
Denial is a powerful human psychological defense.
No wonder we have difficultly accepting the past…and no wonder our brains keep drawing us back to it.
When your brain draws you back to the past…don’t panic. Let it draw you back…but keep enough presence of mind to remind yourself that what you are viewing isn’t live. It’s a recording.
Let yourself feel what you need to feel.
Let yourself cry.
Let yourself be angry.
And let yourself return to the present, knowing that it is the present and the future— not the past— the holds the key to your destiny.
Letting the past go is not easy or simple.
But it’s worth it.
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