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Memories: Committing to a Healthier Look Back to Move Forward

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It’s difficult to look forward. There are obstacles in your way. Often, the largest one is looking backward. But how do you stop yourself from doing it? The answer is simple – you don’t.

Telling yourself to stop looking backward is like telling yourself you don’t need to breathe. It’s a losing battle. As talented as you may be at holding your breath, you are going to eventually gasp for air. It’s physiologically hard-wired in us to breathe. Considering the past – events, mistakes, relationships, highlights – are hard-wired into our brains as well. We will recall moments along with the connected emotional responses. We’re thinking and feeling beings.

Our health in looking forward is found in support of how we look backward. Daniel Pink, for instance, shares research regarding how looking backward, even with regret, helps us to be better negotiators, better strategists, and have better response rates. It’s unlikely, however, that anyone has sat with you to categorize and to encourage a right approach to regret. We would rather avoid it. We tell ourselves to stop thinking about it.

Take, for instance, love. Consider for a moment that relationship that didn’t go as you had hoped. Or perhaps it is the family dynamic that hasn’t come together, whether as part of the family you were born into or the one that came along later in life. It would be understandable to resist and to avoid love moving forward. Based upon what I experienced in the past and how it made me feel, I choose not to allow myself to travel that road again. But again, we are hard-wired for love, for connection, for relationship, for meaning. These areas might carry regret for you, but to deny their place in your life would be detrimental to your emotional health as well as an exercise in futility.

Contextualize your history. Have you made mistakes? Did you cause pain for others? As difficult as it may be to say yes, it is vital to be honest with your review. Too often, we replay our memories to reform history. We want the account to have a different context. We belabor the frameworks to explain what happened, why it happened, how it was supposed to happen, and why what happened wasn’t our fault. Owning the past is an exercise in integrity; it supports our mental health. Yet, if something was not your fault, then don’t own it. Even if you’ve been accused of it, you don’t have to own it. You may have to deal with the consequences of it, however. (That’s a different blog!)

Sit in the truth of what occurred and how you may have made people feel, and then allow that to contextualize your path forward. You don’t live as a victim of that regret, but you can live in light of the lessons learned. Those memories don’t need to be obstacles, but instead, they ought to serve as milemarkers of your growth.

Goal setting your personal and professional development is likely influenced by looking back for gaps and missed opportunities. Growing from those observations rather than being mired down by those observations is where we lose ourselves a bit. We might find ourselves falling into a replay of events one too many times. This is not to minimize your hurt from past events; your pain is something to feel, to deal with, and to move on from. This may take some professional support, and it is worth the effort to do so. But counselors will tell you that staying in that past hurt will not help you nor will it hurt the perpetrator of your hurt. Gaining perspective on how to approach the look backward is a valuable tool.

The fact of the matter is, however, that an individual must want to do this. Despite all the best, well-meaning advice and encouragement, it is the individual who decides to healthily look backward.

This year is your year to look forward differently. Get the tools and support you need to do so.


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