Why Dwelling On the Past Is Self-Defeating
- Wednesday, December 01, 2004
At the University of Kansas, C. R. Snyder and Raymond L. Higgins have been studying for years the excuses for irresponsible, self-defeating behavior. And while much of their work has focused on the legal system and society at large, they are also concerned about the effects of excuses on individual health and well-being. What they have found may surprise you.
First of all, they have documented that excuses soften the link between you and an unfortunate action. That’s the seduction of a good excuse. I can’t control my anger because I’ve always been this way. I’ll never find my soul mate because I seem to attract only the most needy. I’ll be in debt forever because my family could never save money. All these excuses and millions more put a distance between you and your failures. They provide a modicum of comfort because you can explain your angry outbursts, your failed relationships, and your financial woes by pointing to something beyond yourself.
And that’s why, for the short-term, we all need excuses. They protect our dignity and keep a fragile sense of self-esteem from crumbling. But these same excuses, why they linger too long, become our rationalizations for staying stuck.
In other words, an excuse that made you feel less guilty or less defeated at the inset of a poor choice will eventually explain who you are – not simply what you have done. And being at the receiving end of someone else’s poor choice (such as childhood abuse or a marital affair) will eventually explain who you are – not simply what has been done to you.
For example, a woman who falls into a rut of blaming her disrespectful behavior toward her children on the depression she suffers over her divorce will soon attribute automatically all future transgressions with her children to her depression. It becomes habit, even compulsory. If I weren’t depressed I’d treat them better. This excuses her behavior in the short-term, but in the long run it rattles her self-worth to the core. It undermines her sense of personal power, significance, and control. By blaming her insolent behavior on her depression, she gives up her freedom to change. It won’t make any difference, so why try? In essence, she has moved from making the excuse to being the excuse. To justify her continued mistreatment of her kids, she has to remain depressed. And that’s a vicious circle no one wants to be a part of. It won’t help her to move past her past and confidently into the future – and it certainly won’t help her children or anyone else who is part of her life.
All of us are vulnerable to this self-defeatism when we wallow in our personal history. Like this woman who hangs her poor choices on her reactive depression, we come to believe that we have no choice. We sacrifice our freedom to avoid taking responsibility. That’s when dwelling on the past becomes toxic. And that’s exactly why it is so self-defeating. We may want with all our hearts to change our current conditions, but because we fuse our past experiences into out present identity we “can’t help” but be who we are. And unless we choose to make a change, we will continue making the same mistakes.
Dwelling on the past – whether real or imagined – is a road that will never lead to personal growth and health of mind. In fact, it clearly prevents it. You may never know, on this earth, if what you remember happening to you is the truth or not. However, you do have a choice now – to decide whether you will continue dragging around any past baggage or to remain stuck in a “poor me” victim mentality. Don’t define yourself by your past. Don’t allow yourself to continue as a “helpless slave” to a problem. For if you do, you will never actively take charge of your life. Instead, you will continually hand over control of the problem – and, thus, your future life – to others.
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