Why Dwelling On the Past Is Self-Defeating
- 2004 1 Dec
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.
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.
As psychologists, we have treated countless clients who came into our offices after months or years of avoiding responsibility for their problems. “I can’t help the way I am; my mother made me this way” is an ever popular refrain. Successful therapy, in these cases, depends on breaking down the person’s self-deceptive, self-protective excuses. It depends on making him face the link – not between his past and his present – but between himself and his actions. Frankly, it’s a reality that not everyone wants to own. Some want to think of themselves as victims. After all, all of us, if we are honest, are tempted to play the victim on occasion. But that’s what inevitably gets us into trouble…especially if we choose to remain stuck in that mode due to our emotional baggage.
Those who stare at the past have their backs turned to the future. – Unknown
Used with permission from "Love the Life You Live" by Les Parrott, Ph.D. & Neil Clark Warren, Ph.D., published by Tyndale House Publishers, 2003. Visit eHarmony.com to find the love of your life.
Les Parrott, Ph.D., is founder and codirector (with his wife, Dr. Leslie Parrott) of the Center for Relationship Development, a groundbreaking program dedicated to teaching the basics of good relationships, on the campus of Seattle Pacific University (SPU). He is the author of numerous best-selling books, including "Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts." For more information, visit www.realrelationships.com.
Neil Clark Warren, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and the founder of eHarmony.com, a relationship Web site. He is the former dean of the Fuller Graduate School of Psychology and the author of seven books, including the best-seller "Finding the Love of Your Life."