How to Stop Pining For the Past

Lisa Martens

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We have probably all played with those finger traps. Counterintuitively, pulling against it makes it tighter. If you relax, the finger trap slides right off.

I have spend most of my life dealing with anxiety and believing that certain events and rifts doomed me—the divorce of my grandparents, my own birth, moving, having epilepsy, etc.,etc. I made the mistake of always pining for some before time, as many people do. I thought there were certain perfect moments that were ruined, and happiness was never to return again. I saw time as rifts—There was a before, where everyone was happy, and an after—an after which included me.

This might sound like a horrible thing to think and feel, but people feel this way about various topics all the time. Before the 2016 election, we saw just how many Americans pined for some before time. We inch toward Bitcoin and crypto, and still some people cling to the idea of returning to a gold standard.

Does pining for the past help us plan for the future or deal with the present? The answer, my anxiety has taught me, is no.

Nostalgia can be harmful.

Nostalgia can be helpful and bittersweet. We may use pleasant memories to motivate us, or simply enjoy remembering another time.

When we try to change the past through nostalgia, or when we think our best times were in the past, this can send us into a downward spiral.

Trauma and romanticizing the past.

Unpleasant events can cause people to think that bad changes are permanent. "I am doomed" and "Nothing good is ever going to happen" are signs that trauma has occurred. It can be easy to point to one event as the "thing" that doomed you forever.

This same way of thinking can not only make you feel doomed forever, but make you think the past was better than it was. It can be a form of escapism...and it's not always true.

As a child, I always heard about how, before my grandparents were divorced, they had an ideal, perfect family. I only recently realized this was not true. However, the idea that things are somehow worse now and cannot be repaired created a rosy picture of life before the divorce.

Let's be honest—If they got divorced, obviously things were not perfect.

Logic can be a good friend here. Something awful did not happen because things were perfect. Something awful happened, maybe, because problems were being ignored.

The things happening in our society today are terrible—But they did not happen overnight. Before Covid-19, we had issues with medical debt, student loan debt, and prejudice. The disease accelerated all of these issues and brought them to the forefront.

However, dividing the world into before and after, and seeing pre-Covid as some kind of rosy time, and the present as doomed—That is a trap we must all try not to fall into.

But how?

How can we manage our catastrophic thoughts, when literal catastrophes are happening?

Now is the time where hope matters the most.

1. Accepting and reminding oneself that the past was not perfect, and, in fact, created the situation we are in now. A healthy dose of reality helps to keep one level-headed. Once I realized that my birth did not somehow ruin a perfectly happy family, and that my epilepsy did not ruin anything, either, it became easier to move on. People break up, and people sometimes have health issues, but they continue to move on. It might sound strange, but accepting the past was not perfect helps in accepting the future may not be doomed. The pain and the happiness is spread out over time, not separated by one deep chasm.

2. Taking inventory of what you can do right now, and what you've already done. It's easy to look at the news and see all that we are powerless to do. All the work that has to be done, taken all at once, looks insurmountable. If you have ever seen leafcutter ants work, you know those small creatures can take apart an entire tree in just one night. They cut, they bring the leaves home, piece by piece, and they go out and do it again. In difficult times, it's important to remember to take little steps and focus instead of being overwhelmed by the task at hand. Congratulate yourself for what you have done so far, even if it's small, like doing the laundry. I used to think nothing I did would be good enough unless I became crazily successful, but it was this mindset that prevented me from taking steps toward being happy. I didn't think I deserved to be happy until I "fixed" the problems I had "caused." But none of us caused all of this to happen—We just all must work together to over come a large problem, and stay focused, like the leafcutter ant.

3. Plan what you can do, instead of pining for what is not possible. It might seem healthy to buy a trip for 2022 to celebrate the "end" of the pandemic. However, if things don't return "to normal" by then (who knows?), then we will just get frustrated at yet more canceled plans due to the pandemic. Taking more practical adventures now and getting away to a hotel or Airbnb for a weekend will help relieve the pressure. We all need to enjoy our lives right now in any way we can...even a walk around the block every morning can feel like a little vacation. Enjoy what you can do today, safely and securely, instead of pining for a big, crazy trip sometime in the future.

4. Accepting we do not know. We simply do not know when we will be able to enjoy the things we were able to enjoy in January. We simply do not know. No one can tell us for sure. Every time we plan and have to cancel plans, we add to our own frustration. A disease does not care about our timeline. A disease will just come right back when it has the chance. We have to find ways to enjoy our lives now, because if we keep putting off our own happiness, the past just seems more and more rosy, and we fall into the trap of thinking that just because the present and the future will be different, that it will necessarily be worse.

5. Stop the doomscrolling. Looking through miserable stories and tales of hardship and woe will bring your mood down. Instead of doomscrolling, act on something that will make you feel better—maybe volunteer, help spread awareness about a charity drive in your town, or cheer up a friend. Help an elderly person use Zoom—anything else! If acts of service replace doomscrolling, we'll all feel much better.

6. Think about the things that are better/easier now. For me, I get to walk around without being catcalled or approached by men as much. For other introverts, there's less pressure to go out and socialize. Maybe now you've had more time for your children. While the cons might outweigh the pros, it can be helpful to remember that a drastic change means there will be some aspects about life now that you might enjoy more...and that's okay. You don't have to feel bad about that, and you don't have to dismiss it entirely just because there are more negatives than positives. Both can be true at once.

We can only prepare as best as we can for an uncertain future.

The past is not coming back. Even when Covid-19 is gone, the world will be completely different than it was in December 2019. This year will have long-lasting effects on all of our lives.

Pining for December 2019 will not change a thing, and expecting everything to bounce back as though nothing happened is a fever dream.

But we can do our best to change for the better.

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