When You're Living in the Past

There is a difference between thinking about the past and living in it. Sometimes we live in the past because it's familiar; we know what happened; there are no surprises. Think about why you watch your reruns of your favorite old sitcoms over and over again.
06/06/2014 12:46 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Do you spend a lot of time reminiscing about the past? If the answer is yes, that's okay. Thinking fondly about the past and looking back at the way things used to be isn't a bad thing until it is.

There is a difference between thinking about the past and living in it. Sometimes we live in the past because it's familiar -- we know what happened; there are no surprises. Think about why you watch your reruns of your favorite old sitcoms over and over again.

This is what happens when we live in the past. We choose to live there because it's familiar. We know everything that happened. When the past was really good, you can live there because just thinking back on it gives you a feeling of comfort and happiness.

I spent eight years in the Army and am proud to have served my country. I have a friend who also served and although he has been separated from the military for many, many years, he still lives there. Every story he tells is about his days in the military; every situation or scenario that is currently happening is compared to the "good old days" being in the service.

Think of the middle-aged guy you know that always talks about his days as a high school football player; the mom with three kids that talks incessantly about her days as a college gymnast; the retired executive that relives over and over again her days as the head of a Fortune 500 company.

Are you living in the past? You can ask yourself the following questions to help you figure it out:

1. Is there one particular period from the past that you find yourself clinging on to?
2. Do you feel that you will never reach that level of happiness/status/satisfaction/acceptance/etc. again?
3. Are you frustrated with where you currently are in life?
4. Are you fearful of the future?
5. Does thinking about the past actually make you sad?

If you find that you are clinging to a specific period from your past because you don't feel there is anything in the present or future that could possibly better, and if thinking about the past in that way actually makes you sad, you may be stuck in the past.

Why is this a problem?

Living in the past is a problem because it robs you of the opportunity to enjoy the present. Not enjoying the present? If you aren't happy where you are, living in the past won't help! Living in the past allows you to avoid dealing with issues in the present.

Think about this; it's much easier to reminisce about your high school sweetheart than it is to deal with the troubles you are currently having in your marriage. It's nicer to daydream about when you were a star athlete, than it is to look at yourself in the mirror and deal with the extra 60, 70, 80 pounds you're currently carrying around.

If you're currently unemployed or underemployed, it feels better to go back to a time when you were the boss, when people were depending on you, and when they respected and looked up to you.

What causes this unhealthy nostalgia?

While some people live in the past because they don't want to deal with the present, others live in the past for fear of what may come in the future. Just like watching that favorite old sitcom you've seen 100 times, looking back on your life doesn't bring any surprises. Even if some of the past isn't good, it is, at least, predictable.

The future is fraught with uncertainty: What will happen to us, to our family, to our career? And one of the scariest things to contemplate about the future is, what if the best days are behind us?

What if nothing in the future will ever feel as good as what has happened in the past?

You may be fearful of the future if:

1. You find yourself feeling very anxious about what may happen in the next few months and/or years.
2. You avoid making long-term plans.
3. You currently feel frustrated or "stuck" in life and have no plan for how to move ahead.
4. You honestly and truly believe that your best days are behind you.

If you are fearful of the future, there are a few things you can do to help you move to a healthier and more optimistic place.

1. Take stock of what you currently have in your life and all the things you have to be grateful for.
2. Spend some time planning ahead. The future will seem a lot less scary if you have some kind of plan in place and a direction and goals to move towards.
3. Acknowledge that there are some things in life that you just can't control. Learn to let go of those things and feel some of the weight lift off your shoulders.

Life is hard. Anyone who said it wasn't lied to you. Harsh, I know, but very true. But the good news is that you do have control over much of your life; you just have to learn to exercise that control.

And remember this old adage, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift; that's why they call it the present!"