Why Dwelling On the Past Is Self-Defeating
- Wednesday, December 01, 2004
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. – L.P. Hartley
Dwelling on the past is like driving your car with your foot on the brake, your eyes on the rearview mirror, and your gas tank empty. You’re wondering why you aren’t moving forward, and yet all the while you’re focused on the wrong direction. Even if you want to make progress, dwelling on your past keeps you stuck and prevents you from embracing your profound significance.
For example, let’s say that you want to lose weight. But instead of being proactive – checking out exercise and diet programs – you blame your mother for “conditioning” your to clean your plate at every meal. Whether your mother did this or not isn’t the real issue. The real issue is what you’re going to do about it now. If you don’t take steps to lose weight, you never will.
You may want to save money, but if your excuse is that you never had a father who modeled financial savvy (whether he did or not) you’ll live from paycheck to paycheck.
You may want to be more intentional about dating and finding a potential spouse, but if you say you’re shy because you were raised this way (whether you were or not) you’ll probably stay home again this Friday night.
No matter how much you’d like to change, if you are blaming your real or imagined past for your present, you’re not going anywhere. You’ll be permanently stuck in your rut. Sitting in the same place may be “comfortable” because you don’t have to take a risk, but is that really the way you want to live your life?
Let’s make this perfectly clear: Bad things happen in this world. Sometimes they are of your own choosing – because you made a poor decision. Other times bad things happen because there is evil in the world, and even the most saintly among us are not promised an easy ride. Bad things happen to good people.
However, we want you to know that regret, blame, and excuses are a dead end. When your focus is on the lack of nurture your parents provided you as a child, or a mistake you made three years ago that plunged your finances into the red, or the devastating embarrassment your sister caused you as a teenager, of an opportunity you passed up six months ago to initiate a date with an attractive person, then you have “good” excuse for giving up. After all, if you didn’t get the lucky breaks or privileges others did, or you didn’t receive the treatment you thought you deserved, or you were dealt a hand that could barely be played, or you made a choice that was clearly dim-witted, your situation is hopeless. Deep down, when you excavate your way through the layers of excuses, accusations, and blame, aren’t you really asking a simple question: Why try? It won’t make any difference anyway.
Truth be told, we know that’s exactly what you’re saying whenever you choose to be stuck in the past because research has clearly revealed it. Every time you make an excuse for not succeeding in the present, every time you cast your gaze to the past for an explanation of your current predicament, you are convincing yourself that your problem is more and more hopeless. In fact – and this is key – you excuses are actually producing the very kind of problem behavior you are attempting to explain.
Let’s take Dave for an example. For years he’s blamed his problems in relationships on his overbearing mother and his distant father. I just can’t get anybody to like me, he tells himself – and he acts on that. Although he’s physically attractive and has garnered many dates as a result, he booby-traps every date by showing up late, forgetting his wallet, or talking only about himself. My parents just never taught me to relate to others, he insists. Well, perhaps they did – and perhaps they didn’t. But again, that isn’t the issue. Because he thinks he can’t relate to others, he isn’t even trying – and as a result, he doesn’t relate well to others.
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