I was juggling work, lockdown, and feeling increasing unease living in an urban area where political tensions and crime were at an all time high. It checks out that in the midst of all this, I’d receive a call from my ex. The dreaded postmortem.
We’d mutually ended our relationship a few months earlier, and I was caught off-guard and nervous to be getting a call from him. To cope, I had thrown myself into work (always a bad idea) and was casually seeing a coworker (an even worse idea). My mental and emotional health were lower than they had ever been.
Surprisingly enough, the call wasn’t as bad as I thought, and when we parted on cordial, yet awkward, terms, I couldn’t help but examine what was left. I missed his family whom I loved dearly and the places we’d been together. I missed his humor and his loyalty, and the friends I’d lost who were really his friends instead of mine. Of the several serious relationships I’ve had in my life that failed, I could confidently say that I still cared for him and even sometimes wished we were still together. So why weren’t we?
That thought led me to a painful yet necessary reminder that I needed at that moment. We cared for each other, but it wasn’t enough. We didn’t agree on religion and had very different perspectives on money and personal finance. I was ready for marriage, a home, and a family. He still had many things he wanted to do before “settling down.” It wasn’t enough.
Romanticizing the past is a very real and, in practice, a very dangerous, painful pastime. As women, we tend to be more emotionally-minded and emotionally-centered, and while this is a strength in many ways – through it we can practice empathy, compassion, and self-awareness – it can also lead us to inaccurately represent our past, obstruct our present, and damage our future.
Nostalgia Is a Drug
Why do we romanticize the past? Because it feels good, naturally. The very word nostalgia in Greek translates to “the pain of returning home.” Going back to the past is pleasant for us, but in the end, all it really gives us is heartache and anguish.
Nostalgia isn’t just an emotion. For many of us, it’s an experience, whether we’re remembering our childhood home, a friend or family member who died, or a lost love. Psychologically speaking, nostalgia is a natural temptation for us as humans. It’s normal and even understandable that every so often we think back to a specific moment within the past. When we reminisce about even the smallest detail and it brings us happiness, that process triggers nostalgia, even if the overall experience wasn’t a positive one.
Nostalgia affords us an uncomplicated yet inaccurate portrayal of how we think things were.
Our memories are imperfect. We tend to remember things as much better or much worse than they actually were, and it’s here that nostalgia can lead to romanticization. The reasoning behind this is pretty simple, actually. When we recall a memory, if there was even one positive association we can make with it, we would recall that memory overall as positive even if it wasn’t. Consider one example: On one particular day, you might have gotten in a fender bender or gotten chewed out by your boss. But that day was also your birthday, so the first memory your mind goes to is the party your friends threw for you later on. Despite the unfortunate things that happened, you’d recall that day as a happy memory and overwhelmingly positive.
Nostalgia can be intoxicating. It can be tempting to go back to the past again and again, especially if our current state of things isn’t as great. And we might justify this habit by acknowledging the obvious truth of the situation: We can’t go back to the past and we’ll never be able to, so what’s the harm in romanticizing it?
The Grass Is Greener…or Is It?
The primary danger of this habit is when it inevitably leads us to living in the past more than the present. If the past is so great, why would we want to be anywhere else?
When I think back to that particular ex-boyfriend and the relationship we had, this in particular resonates with me. For a large majority of our relationship, he was still living in our college town and living the college life. Meanwhile, I had graduated and moved on. I had a savings account and a job and bills. He was still going out every weekend, seeing friends and going to parties, juggling an active social life and school at the same time. When I saw him on the weekends, it felt like a huge disconnect, not just in our relationship but within my identity. I was an adult, or at least trying to be, but I was still stuck in the past trying to do the things I’d left behind ages ago.
I could have wholeheartedly thrown myself into that lifestyle and tried to hold on to the person I wasn’t anymore. At times, I wanted to. Going back to college was so much simpler and uncomplicated than the demands of a full-time career. But in the end, I couldn’t. While I looked back on my college days fondly, I had the distinct memory of being at parties or at bars and looking around thinking, “I don’t belong here.”
When we cling to the past, we fail to thrive in the present.
Rose-colored glasses make the grass a lot greener than it actually is. Nostalgia affords us an uncomplicated yet inaccurate portrayal of how we think things were, not how they really were or currently are. When we cling to the past, we fail to thrive in the present. We’re too busy holding on to that version of ourselves by any means necessary that we never consider the possibilities of the future. Not only that, but we’re blinded to the fleeting beauty of the present and everything in front of us by constantly yearning for the way things “used to be.” The past will never be better than the present. It’s only by virtue of not being able to go back to that place that we want it more than what we currently have.
How To Look at Things Realistically
Romanticizing the past may be natural, but it definitely isn’t helpful. And unfortunately, looking at things realistically, while necessary, isn’t easy.
People naturally evolve throughout their lives. No one can stay exactly the same as they once were, and first and foremost, we need reminders of that more than anything else. While you romanticize the past, you’re also mourning the person you once were. In some ways, nostalgia feels bittersweet because it’s a grief process. You aren’t the same person you were, but you cling to the past because it’s better than the unknown that lies ahead.
To truly get to the heart of why we’re so ready and willing to go back to the past, we have to think about why we’re trying to escape to seemingly better or happier times. Maybe we’re struggling in our romantic life or social life. We can’t seem to find a boyfriend or friends. Maybe we’re facing new changes, like moving to a new city, starting a new job, or having a baby. We don’t know what the future holds, and it’s really fear that’s driving us backwards. Fear of the unknown and fear of the future are natural, but that doesn’t mean it’s better to live in the past.
In breaking this habit, at times we may have to be harsh with ourselves. The truth is, nothing can be as good as the present moment, and we take away that gift from ourselves the more we live in the past.
There’s an old saying, “you can’t go home again.” When it comes to romanticizing the past, we can either learn to accept this fundamental truth early on, or go through the painful process of eventually being forced to learn why. The present is fleeting and it’s gone in a moment, and if we want to live a full life without regrets, the sooner we realize this, the better off we are.
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