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Why is it so much easier to look back than to move forward?

Updated on April 6, 2015
HealthbyMartha profile image

I'm a Certified Health Coach who wants to help you create the best balance of spiritual, physical and mental health that is possible.

Tackling your fear of the unknown

I think most of us throughout life have several points where we become aware that the status quo is no longer working.

Be it a job that has become stifling, a life partner that you no longer love, or just a restless feeling that you need to shake things up, change is inevitable.

I, like many people find change to be scary. Oh, it can also be exhilarating and one of the best things we allow to happen. But, at first glance the concept of change can be a bitter pill to swallow.

For me, I am realizing in my second half of life how many times that I turned to the past when I was trying to create change. Maybe a former boyfriend started to seem like a possible prospect in the present, or a place I once lived beckons to me to return. It feels so warm and comforting to think all you have to do is go back and pick up where you left off.

But is it that easy? Aren't there some traps waiting to drag you under?

Is looking back blocking your forward momentum?

I think it's normal and fine for one to look to the past when thinking about making a change in the present. But, the danger is in seeing the past through rose colored glasses and remembering selectively while forgetting some of the problems.

At one time, the choices you made in the past were exactly what you wanted. Over time, however you changed, or circumstances changed and that is how the past became, well...the past! It can be wonderful to drift back to memories of days gone by when you felt happy and secure and that life was as good as it could get. The problem with memory is that it is a flawed process. All too often we don't remember the way things really were, as much as through a filter of where we are now while recalling. It is simply human nature to forget a lot of the detail and recall the most positive and negative of experiences. Even when we do recall something painful that happened in our lives, we probably don't feel quite the same charge in recalling it as we did when it first occurred. So, when we look back to a former life partner or a friend who has gone by the wayside we might remember only the fun times we shared and forget some of the negative aspects of the relationship.

For instance, I can recall a former boyfriend and think about all the wonderful things that I liked about him, and why I loved him. I might have to think a while longer about why he is now a former boyfriend and not present in my life. Maybe it simply was a matter of timing not being right, or some issue that wasn't so much a flaw in the person or in the relationship as just a problem related to circumstance.

In this case, looking back because you recall that perhaps it was not the relationship but the timing that was off, might not be a bad idea. Maybe you simply need closure? Maybe there is a chance that in the present day, the relationship might have a chance at being something more meaningful now, than when you were first a couple.

But, what if you go back without fully thinking through what might have gone wrong? It is comforting to remember all the good and also comforting to "forget" the bad. But, do any of us have the luxury of so much time that we want to waste any of it with the wrong people?

For me, life is too short to waste it trying to recreate something that didn't work the first time.

The Siren song of the past

Relationships of the past aren't the only things that can pull us back in time.

Former jobs, or even former places in the world that you once called home can all be lures when you find yourself in a situation that is less than ideal.

It is often very tempting to consider going back to a job, or to a place you once lived to see if you might do it differently now and have a better outcome.

But, again the memory can be selective and you might be remembering fondly how nice it was to be able to walk everywhere from your apartment, while forgetting how much traffic went right by your bedroom window and how noisy it was night and day.

You might consider that you would go back to a job you once had, because you know how to do it and you know the pay is decent. But, did you remember how miserable the job made you? Do you remember that you always had to work overtime, and had to often work without lunch or a break? It's much easier when your present job is inadequate to look longingly to the past as a potential "do over".

Maybe though we can look back, but move forward?

I can see Clearly Now

Why not look to the past to inform decisions you make in the present? We can look backward to see what worked and to be honest with ourselves about what did not work. From this vantage point we can still move forward, but make a decision about that with information from previous experiences.

For instance, when looking for a new life partner, it might be helpful to look backward to a previous partner. Consider all the things that you loved about that person; the parts of the relationship that served you and made you happy. Now, be honest and try to recall all the things that you did not like and that did not serve you. Now, you have opened up a better view to the past so that you can look forward a bit more clearly.

You can make a list of all the pros in one column and the con's in another. List all that was good, then all the things that were not so good. You can now think about the person you would like to have in your life. You now have a bit of a blueprint for what might work, and what you know will not.

The beauty of this is that you acknowledge the past and embrace it, but at the same time make closure with it and release it. Now you can move forward and while you can't recreate the relationship, you can try to create something brand new from your past success.

This same principle can be used in looking for a new job or a new home as well.

I personally worked in the medical field as a Nurse for more than 30 years before retiring to do something else. As I work on my next career, it is tempting to go back and just find another Nursing job. But I ask myself how it would feel to again work as a Nurse? And, I start remembering all the good, and all of the bad. I am able then to realize and be reassured that while Nursing served me well all those years, it no longer serves me. I have grown and changed over these years and to honor those changes; going back is not the way for me.

Surely there will be times when going back might be just the right thing to do! You may have left a relationship for good reasons at the time, but now you may be in such a different place that this same person could now work well with you as a partner. Or, maybe a job you left for "greener pastures" starts looking pretty good when those same pastures have dried up and gone brown.

I would not ever say that you can't go back! Only that by doing so you may miss out on some great new person, job or place to live that you hadn't yet considered.

It's your life and your choice. Just try to use the rear view mirror of your past to help you navigate an informed course toward your future.


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      Jody 2 years ago

      It was good how you can put things in perspective. Weigh the pros and cons in decisions. Looking forward in life's experiences.