“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”
– Thomas Jefferson
The tendency to focus and dwell on regrets, sadness, and disappointments of the past is extremely common and comes in many different forms. It’s very easy to give time and attention to situations that have already happened and spend time turning these scenarios over and over in our minds wishing we could change them or maybe just make sense of them. We spend time thinking, “If only I had studied longer before that test, I could have passed this class” or “Why did I tell that secret to my friends? They probably think I am so weird now” or even “I should have called my grandmother when my mom told me to. I could have told her I loved her one last time before she passed.” The even bigger nuisance about focusing on the past, is that we even tend to do this about other people’s behaviors, such as, “If my partner would have done their part on this project, our grade would have been so much better” or “If my dad would have just stopped drinking when he promised he would, we wouldn’t be in this situation” or even “I wish my friend would have finished her homework, so that she wasn’t grounded this weekend.” However, the one thing all of these thoughts of the past have in common, is that dwelling on them won’t change a thing. Rather, what often happens when we are consumed with the past is that we experience an increase in sadness and anxiety. Let’s explore some ways to start making peace with the past.
Self-awareness is a key component of not allowing the past to control us. It is necessary to be aware of when we are becoming consumed with thoughts of the past that are not helpful, but rather just plain hurtful. One way we can do this is to assess whether thoughts of the past are productive or unproductive. We can do this by reflecting on if the thoughts we are having about the past are beneficial for teaching us a life lesson or helpful in processing through the event, so that we can move forward. When the thoughts about the past are helping us to figure out what to do differently next time and help us to heal from the pain of this experience, we call these productive thoughts. However, when the thought is just on a loop and we are using this thought to beat ourselves up or to play a victim role, we then call this an unproductive thought. Once we determine whether the thought is productive or unproductive, we can then decide how to move forward with it.
If we determine the thoughts are productive, we can then spend a limited amount of time processing through them and identifying tangible ways to make different choices next time we are faced with a similar situation. On the other hand, if we determine our thoughts are unproductive, we should then figure out how we can stop focusing on these thoughts and change the channel in our brain. It is important to recognize that we can only change things that are within our circle of control. This includes our (and only our) thoughts, behaviors, and decisions. This does not include things that have already happened, or another person’s thoughts, behaviors, or decisions, or external events, like the weather, sport scores, or what the cafeteria is serving for lunch. When we focus our time and attention on the things that are not within our circle of control, we are choosing to give our power away and we are allowing these people and/or events to control our moods and feelings. Thus, when we catch ourselves experiencing unproductive thoughts of the past, it is crucial to find ways to choose different thoughts. We can do this by distracting ourselves with other activities, calling a friend, watching a movie, exercising, or even purposely picking a new thought (such as something we are happy or excited about). We must not forget that events from the past are no longer in our control, thus, it is not a good use of our time and energy to allow them to consume our minds. A good mantra to keep in mind is, “If it’s out of your hands, it deserves freedom from your mind too.” – Ivan Nuru
Dr. Elizabeth Fedrick is a Licensed Professional Counselor and owns a private practice, Evolve Counseling, in Gilbert, Arizona. She specializes in various areas, including depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship issues, and personal improvement. In addition to providing therapeutic services, Elizabeth also teaches Behavioral Health courses for Grand Canyon University.