Song lyrics, memes, and more often tell us, “Don’t look back.” It seems like sound advice. In a practical sense, we know we should watch where we are going in order to avoid an accident. Metaphorically, if we dwell too much on what is past, we risk missing out on great things in the present and future.
The pain of a loss, disappointment, or failure can be so great we often choose anger or avoidance as a way of minimizing the grief we feel. It makes sense – anger is an emotion over which most of us feel we have some control, whereas grief can launch a full-fledged assault on all of our senses, leaving us feeling emotionally and energetically empty. Avoidance is a sort of “saving face” inner voice which tells us, “I didn’t really care about that as much as thought I did, so it doesn’t really hurt as much as I think it does.” To be fair, anger and avoidance can be effective coping mechanisms for the short-term. However, the issues they appear to heal today can reappear as open wounds tomorrow.
Grief is a time of nevers. “I’ll never fall in love again.” “I’ll never forgive that person.” “I’ll never get another pet.” Ever heard something similar? Ever said something similar? The problem with never statements is they trap a piece of our psyche in a particular place and time. Our brains are basically big file cabinets. We file painful memories deep in our subconscious, and research has shown our brain sometimes files for us, stashing away traumatic events in an effort to protect us. However, painful memories have a way of springing to the forefront – sometimes in our dreams, and sometimes because of a trigger such as a smell or sound. When you prepare for the possibility of the past appearing in the present, you minimize the anxiety and depression which might otherwise accompany these troubling and intrusive thoughts.
In my job, I meet people every day who have been the victims of trauma, who have been in prison, and/or who are trying to overcome addictions to drugs/alcohol/sex/gambling/food — you name it. Several have a special item or memento they keep close at hand which serves a dual purpose. First, it grounds them in the present to remind them of where they are right now in their recovery. Second, it reminds them of how far they’ve come, and how much worse things could have been had they not taken a step towards positive change. It is something they can touch — a coin, a family heirloom, a necklace — which helps them regain focus when life seems out of control.
Keeping a memento does not necessarily mean we are living in the past. It can mean we have prepared ourselves for those times when our present feels too much like the past. Likewise, looking back doesn’t mean we are going back, but rather serves as an acknowledgement we have made progress, no matter how small.
Only looking forward can be daunting, particularly if you have a big goal. For instance, if you are trying to write a novel or lose a hundred pounds or run your first marathon, the road ahead can seem frightfully long and arduous. Take a moment to look back – look at the first word on the page, the first pound lost, the first mile you ran without stopping. Then remember it wasn’t very long ago those small milestones were hurdles in front of you. In moments of quiet reflection, it is sometimes helpful to look back – not so we can live with regrets or dwell on the past – but to enable ourselves to keep pressing forward.