We all carry a past around with us. Like passport stamps of places seen and adventures had, whether those adventures were full of joy or tinted with sadness, the past is with us always, little marks there to remind us of what came before now.
The past shapes how we think and who we are: how we see the world, how we choose to react to events, how we function in relationships and the decisions we make from moment to moment. The past is our framework, our series of examples from which to draw conclusions, and a way in which we continue to survive, continuing to follow paths that previously brought us joy and avoiding those which brought pain.
In many ways, past experience is a positive thing. It only took one go of touching a hot iron to learn that you should never touch a hot iron. Pleasant, happy memories can beget the creation of more pleasant, happy memories. But many of our experiences, especially those that exist in deeper, more emotional planes, can change how we live in our present lives in ways we might not even be aware of. Their effects depend largely on how we use these experiences and how they flicker in and out of our consciousness day to day.
“I divide looking at the past into three camps: reminiscing, reflection and rumination,” New York City psychotherapist Megan Bruneau, M.A., RCC, says. “Reminiscing can be understood as remembering positive times that evoke warmth and gratitude. Reflection can be understood as mindfully paying attention to our past experiences with compassion and curiosity and seeing how we can use them to grow and learn. The difficult emotions we experience when looking at the past are meant to protect us and enhance our lives moving forward. For example, if you feel guilt, it means you did something that wasn’t in line with your values: experiencing guilt ensures you won’t do it again. Rumination, on the other hand, has a cyclical quality in which there’s a refusal to accept and integrate the past.”
Integrating the past—that is, allowing it to inform your present but not allowing it to dictate your present—is an essential part of living truly in the moment. Here’s how to live into your present without letting your past take charge.
What it means to live in the past
Living in the past is what happens when we are removed from our present and find ourselves thinking incessantly about a negative emotional experience.
“These experiences might be anything that left you feeling regretful, resentful, angry, cheated, betrayed, remorseful, ashamed or grief-stricken,” Bruneau explains. “It’s one thing to acknowledge or reflect on these, but it can become problematic if we get caught in an unhealthy loop we can’t get out of, replaying ‘if only…’ statements in our minds. When we repeatedly think about what happened, what went wrong, what could have been different and how that experience impacted us negatively, we are living in the past.
For many, this way of thinking is a way of seeking control over a situation. “Rumination is closely tied to depression,” Bruneau says, “which makes sense: a person who is suffering is going to try to make sense of what they’re going through and connect dots to prevent it from happening again. Our minds ruminate until we find an answer.”
The trouble with this is that an answer may not exist and we’ll spend days, weeks, years ruminating on the past, effectively missing out on the present as we try to wrangle what was into something different. Our experience of this repeats and repeats, casting a shadow on how we think about the present and changing our reactions, thoughts, perceptions and beliefs about now based on what was then.
There is value in thinking about your past
Acknowledging your past is not always a bad thing, as in the above example of reflection. The past has a lot of information to offer us. Bruneau likes to work with the idea that “it can be helpful to look at the past, but we must be careful not to stare.”
While some experts might recommend we stay perpetually present and future-focused, Bruneau finds this unrealistic and unhelpful. “Humans are very black-and-white when it comes to thinking about these things: we tend to see our options as either ‘living in the past’ or never looking at the past, but truly, there are many positive things that can come from reflection.”
When we turn our focus on the past to thinking about what we can learn or what we can deduce about ourselves, the past can be a powerful encyclopedia.
“When we look backwards with awareness, we may find clues about what really matters to us and what we want to bring to our lives,” Portland-based therapist Fara Tucker, LCSW, says. For instance, there is power in identifying which types of experiences we tend to think about with regret.
“That which we regret contains a clue about what we really desire,” Tucker says. This provides a starting point to begin to move towards what we want (and away from what we don’t).
She also believes in the past’s ability to remind us of our strengths. “A student I worked with years ago once told me, ‘I only look backwards to see how far I’ve come,'” she says. “Looking to the past can be a powerful way to acknowledge our growth and resiliency.”
… as long as your past isn’t holding you back
When we’re living presently, we’re open to new ideas, new thoughts. We’re more accepting, perhaps even more forgiving. Living in the past, on the other hand, reinforces old ways of thinking and can prevent us from moving forward on our paths of growth, openness and acceptance. These old ways of thinking can stop us from seeing what is really happening and instead filter the present through a foggy filter of what used to be.
“Most of the time, our perception of the ‘present’ moment is filtered through what we expect to see, feel, hear and think,” Tucker explains. “These expectations are based on what we have experienced in the past. We have a belief about how things will go, even if we’re not conscious of this, and then we project it onto the present. This causes us to see things that aren’t there or miss what is there. We expect certain things, look for them, and naturally find what we seek. This reinforces our existing beliefs and makes them stronger.”
In many ways, the past lives in our bodies. Memories are encoded not only mentally but physiologically, too. “It is so easy for the present to trigger something from the past, especially when there is something about the new situation that the nervous system perceives as similar to something it has experienced before,” Tucker says. “When this happens, we react to the past situation, not the present.”
The past can also surface and cause problems in our relationships, particularly if one or both parties is projecting their past experiences onto the other. “If a person is unaware they are projecting the past onto a friend or partner, they can genuinely feel hurt by something that isn’t even happening,” Tucker explains. “Then they can feel hurt again or invalidated when the person denies it or acts like they are being unreasonable.”
These habitual patterns of thinking and reacting are grounded in our original reasons for thinking or acting that way, and we begin to think that these things are real: they are who we are and how we are. Much of our suffering, Tucker says, comes from being stuck in these patterns. “When we recognize that these behaviors are reactions from our past, not intrinsic pieces of who we are, we are more able to change them.”
Practicing this way of thinking–that is, negative, self-doubting, afraid, angry, whatever it is for you in response to a situation—strengthens the thought pattern and makes it even more likely we will return to that thought next time we’re incited to. “If a person is not mindful (read: aware) of this habitual way of thinking, the effects of this way being are made more powerful.”
How to tell if you’re living in the past
If your aim is to experience your life as it’s happening, live presently and grow into your future self, retaining detrimental, negative perceptions from your past will interfere in your present (and your future) if you allow it to. The trouble is our tendency to live in the past is so strong: we might not even know we’re doing it.
So how to know if this is happening for you?
“Begin to pay attention to some of your thoughts and feelings,” Bruneau suggests, defining the very heart of mindfulness. “If you notice your feelings are primarily regret, resentment, grief, betrayal, anger, remorse, guilt, shame, etc., and that your thoughts often have the flavor of ‘If only x had/hadn’t happened’ or ‘Why couldn’t x have happened?’ or ‘I wish I could turn back time and do it all over again,’ you might be spending more time in the past than is helpful.”
Tucker recommends gauging your reactivity to situations. “You might be reacting to the past if you notice your level of reactivity to a situation and what you are believing about yourself seems stronger, more intense or more lingering than seem reasonable for the situation,” she says. “These disproportionate reactions might suggest you’ve had the past triggered.”
How to return to the present
If you discover that certain situations bring you back to a place you’ve been before–or that your reactions are truly those of the past–it can be helpful to have a few tricks up your sleeve to ground, center and reengage with the present.
As Bruneau explains, “All we have is the present. The past and future are just our minds telling us stories.” There is little joy in the make-believe, as it only serves to remove us from what is actually happening in the present.
“When we are really embodied in the present, we are less reactive, we experience more ease, and we are more free and empowered in our lives,” Tucker explains. “Certainly there are times when one’s present circumstances cause distress, but oftentimes even then it is the old ways of relating to the situation—or what we are believing about ourselves based on the past–that causes the greater distress than the thing itself.”
For these reasons, it can be powerful to live into your present. Seeing, acknowledging, processing and appreciating what is really around you–even when it is difficult—is powerful.
Pay active attention to your thoughts and feelings as they arise. Tucker suggests “labeling” your feelings as you notice them. “Whenever you notice you are thinking about the past, you can label it,” she says. “The basic way to do this is to say to yourself, ‘past’ or ‘past thinking.’”
The very act of naming the thought as a reaction to the past can deplete a bit of its power and allow you to come back to the present. It can also help to take a few breaths, notice sensation in your body (like your feet in contact with the ground) and take in the stimuli of your surroundings, Tucker says.
Bruneau suggests crafting a mantra for yourself to use for grounding when you recognize you’re slipping into past living. “Meditation is a great way to practice a present-focused mindset and change your default from past-focused to present-focused,” she says.
As Tucker notes, too, practicing being present during structured meditation time can make it easier to access this way of thinking during micromeditations throughout your day or anytime you feel you’re reverting to past living.
Practice forgiveness and seek to learn
Being hard on yourself for slipping into the past is counterproductive. Usually what we need in these situations is compassion as they tend to bring up some of our more vulnerable, emotional aspects. Instead, try to see your situation with curiosity and kindness.
“Don’t judge yourself for thinking about the past; rather, be curious about whether you’re ruminating, reflecting, or reminiscing, and try to adjust or redirect your attention accordingly,” Bruneau recommends. “If you discover you’re in a cycle of rumination, remind yourself that we can’t change the past. Our most productive option is to practice self-forgiveness and look for meaning in whatever happened.”
The past, in its role in your life now, is to help you learn and guide your decision-making in the present.
Bruneau suggests asking yourself, “How has [perceived negative event] affected me positively? How has it made me more resilient, or empathic, or helped guide my path positively? What did I learn from [perceived negative event]? Who did this event bring into my life whom I might not have met otherwise?”
While it might not always be easy to find that silver lining, consider instead what the perceived negative event might have provided protection from. “It sounds morbid, but I often tell myself if X hadn’t happened, I might have been hit by a car,” Bruneau says. “Recognizing what’s in your control (i.e. that you can’t change the past), practicing self-compassion acceptance, and finding meaning in whatever happened are all helpful strategies for getting out of the rumination loop.”
Ask yourself what is true
Often, our past influence clouds our judgment and makes us perceive things that are not really there. It’s as though the past is telling us an untruth about what we’re experiencing, so to arrive back in the present, we need to separate truth from fiction.
“Sometimes just asking the question, ‘Is this true?’ or ‘Is it possible this is not true?’ can create enough of a space between the old belief and ourselves to begin to lessen its hold on us,” Tucker advises.
This can also extend to our sense of self. If you’re noticing you’re feeling particularly ashamed, unworthy or fearful (in the absence of actual danger), your past might be popping up. In these situations, Tucker suggests asking yourself, “What is actually happening right now?” Reflect on what is actually happening and tap into your present bank of skills, knowledge and emotional tools to work through it.
The past cannot be changed. We can only take from it what we need—to learn, grow, make decisions, be better, be kinder, be more compassionate to ourselves and others—and use it as a tool to live more fully in the present.
When we can identify when and how our pasts are triggered, and use this information to live more fully here and now, we break out of dangerous cycles of negativity and instead step more fully into our ever-growing, ever-shifting current selves.