How to stop romanticizing the past so you can enjoy your life right now
We tend to rewrite history for today’s world to be unable to compete. This can be done with your relationships (“I loved my ex ]”),”), jobs (“Those boring work meetings allowed me to come up with killer raps”), or life before the pandemic (“My [exhausting] jam-packed social calendar made me live !”).”). The grass was always greener in the past. We focus on the positive memories and erase the negative ones. This leads us to devalue the good aspects of our lives. In the future, we will likely miss today.
This rosy retrospective is what some psychologists call this ” happy retrospection .” In the addiction recovery community, romanticizing our past is often called “euphoric memory,” which the Substance Addiction and Mental Health Services Administrative defines as “remembering the pleasures of stimulant use without remembering the negative consequences.” In my twenties, I was the queen of this. At 20, I wanted to be chugging red Solo cups next to a beer keg with my high school buddies. In my early twenties, I had dropped out of college to return home. In my late 20s, I missed my ex-girlfriend, whom I had been dating. I craved anyone and everything that wasn’t part of my life any longer.
It was a good thing that I had longed for in the past. “We’re bombarded with information all day long, and to make sense of it, we use shortcuts,” Nikki Coleman, Ph.D., an identity specialist in Houston, told SELF. Research has shown that your brain can take shortcuts to focus on positive memories and ignore negative ones. “It takes a lot of energy to remember all the negative emotions, threats, and fears, so we tend to forget them,” Dr. Coleman says.
A study conducted in 2019 found that “fading affect bias,” or the tendency for bad memories to fade faster than sound, is associated with grit. Grit, as defined by researchers, is “psychological well-being and perseverance.” Britt Frank LSCSW is a psychotherapist, The Science of Stuck author, and a SELF contributor. She says that people romanticize the past when the truth hurts. It’s a type of emotional numbing.
It can be fun and comforting to look back fondly on the past, but it may make you feel bad about your present life. You should adjust your perspective. Experts offer advice on how to avoid being swept away by nostalgia. This will help you judge the past and present pretty.
Frank says that when you look back on the good times, you may not see them as they were. She suggests asking yourself questions to “contaminate fantasy,” as some therapists or counselors call the process of analyzing the consequences of your actions. Frank recommends “getting into the habit of asking, ‘How accurate is the story that I am telling myself?’ to ensure you are not creating a distorted view of the past.”
What is the fastest way to get an answer? You can give your memories a reality check by balancing out the positive and negative or even the neutral. Frank suggests that when reminiscing about a “perfect relationship” from the past, you identify (out loud or by writing in a journal) five things that were not exactly what you would find in a romance novel. You can do the same with past “dream jobs” or cities you’ve lived in but left for good reasons. She says the goal is not to dwell on negative memories but to balance the good ones with the bad (or average) to understand the actual events better. You’ll be less likely to romanticize your past and feel that the present isn’t up to par.
Recognize what you’re missing.
Look at your seemingly nostalgic memories and ask yourself exactly what you miss about those times. “Maybe you felt loved, or maybe you felt excited about what you were doing,” says Nancy Colier, LCSW, author of Can’t Stop Thinking: How to Let Go of Anxiety and Free Yourself from Obsessive Rumination. Identifying your nostalgia’s roots may help you recreate similar situations that can bring you the same joyful feelings you’re longing for.
For example, if you’re craving the sense of community you felt when you and your coworkers used to hit up the local pub every Thursday after work, you could create a similar meetup at your new job. Or if you’re reminiscing about the musty smell of newsprint in the neighborhood comic shop you frequented as a preteen, schedule some time to re-read old favorites. Miss having a partner to hang out and travel with? It might be time to pursue a new relationship (or book a vacation with your best friends if it’s the passport stamp you’re after).
Of course, you may not be able to recreate the same circumstances from your past–due to age, new responsibilities, or the loss of a person or pet, for example. In those cases, Colier recommends giving yourself compassion for the “process of change and loss of identity” that’s part of the human experience. “Maybe you can’t go to college and run that triathlon anymore,” she says. “This human journey is filled with fluidity and loss, and change is the only constant.” Simply recognizing that and acknowledging the beauty of the past can help you stay connected and bring you peace. “You might think, ‘Wow, what a time,’ and just because I can’t live it now doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist within me,'” she says.