We have spoken before on the importance of not living in the past. This is an important principle because living in the past keeps us from progressing, learning, and can lead to emotional issues such as depression. However, I recently became aware that in our attempt to not live in the past, some people go to an unhealthy extreme. The best way to describe this extreme is “burying the past”. I know that some people are doing this because I found myself doing it in certain instances.
First let me explain what I mean by burying the past, and how this is different from not living in the past. When we talk about not living in the past, we are referring to not focusing on the past. Focusing on the past includes holding grudges, not forgiving ourselves, longing for the “good old days”; basically anytime we wish we could change something in our past or return and stay in past moments. So if that’s what living in the past means, then what is burying the past?
Burying the past is when we completely try to avoid our past. When we bury something, it’s generally with the intent of never seeing it again, or at least not seeing it for a long time. We try to not think about or talk about past events. One may be asking, well what’s wrong with not wanting to remember past mistakes or difficult times? The problem with burying the past is that in our attempt to bury painful or embarrassing experiences, we also end up burying pleasant experiences and lessons we could learn.
I found this to be true with myself. When I tried not to recall past mistakes, I began to also forget about good experiences regarding the event, or events that happened around the same time. Additionally, I found myself hardly thinking about my past at all; again, this included the happy memories.
There’s another problem with burying the past, and it’s actually the main problem. When we bury the past, we are not addressing the issue. The desire to bury the past comes when we have not reconciled past events. If you don’t want to think about your past it means you are still carrying some shame, fear, or insecurity about the event(s). When we reconcile our past mistakes and unpleasant experiences, we can actually look back on them with joy and gratitude.
How could we ever look back on mistakes with joy? It’s actually quite simple, if we have reconciled the event. You see, when we have reconciled an event, we can look back at a mistake without stress, shame, or judgement. This allows us to see the event with correct perspective. Joy comes when we see how far we’ve come since the mistake. We feel grateful that we are slower to anger, kinder, or have grown wiser. Additionally, when the events are reconciled, we can easily look back and remember all the good in the past because we are no longer trying to avoid our past.
Could we ever look back on traumatic events with joy? This is a great question, and the answer is yes, we can look back on traumatic events with joy and gratitude, if they are reconciled. When I say this, I don’t necessarily mean you have to be joyful that a traumatic event occured. I’m not saying you have to jump up and down with joy if you were abused, hurt, betrayed, etc. However, when reconciled, these events can lead us to greater heights and service. And that’s something for which we can be grateful.
If you’ll indulge me, I’ll share two quick personal examples. When I was 19 I contracted Dengue Fever twice within the same year, the second time becoming hospitalized. Anyone unfamiliar with this disease should know that it is very unpleasant. To this day it is the worst physical pain I’ve ever experienced in my life.
There have also been two periods in my life where I experienced severe depression. It was debilitating, making it near impossible to get anything done. There were many nights I secretly cried myself to sleep. These were the most painful emotional experiences of my life.
I use these experiences because they were the most painful physical and emotional times of my life. However, I have no problem thinking or talking about them. Why? One, because I’ve reconciled them; two, because I can see the positive fruits that have come from them, and that brings me a great amount of gratitude.
What good could have possibly come from these experiences? I grew much more empathy for those who suffer. My desire to serve other people grew. I am able to relate with more people. My perspective on life changed. I am more patient through challenges. These are just some of the blessings that came through my challenges.
Throughout history there have been great men and women who took very difficult experiences and used them to make themselves stronger and better able to serve others. Some names that come to mind are George Washington, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, and Oprah.
How do we learn to look back with gratitude and joy? The first step is to reconcile the event; changing how we view and think about the experience. I highly recommend our Cognitive Therapi program and podcast to help with this step. You’ll receive tools and techniques that can be used anytime. The second step (which can be done while you’re learning to reconcile the experience) is to begin looking back at the event searching for blessings and lessons. What good has come from it? What good could come from it? How could you use your experience to be a blessing in the lives of others? What lessons have you learned? What else could you learn?
Asking questions like these help us to turn the negative experience into something that we can look back on with joy. Not because of the experience itself, but because of the good we end up making from it. Memories are a great blessing, if we learn to interpret them in a healthy way. We can use them to our advantage or let them negatively influence us.The choice is yours.
As a final thought I want to clarify that looking back with joy doesn’t mean living in the past. Looking back with joy or gratitude is a lot like using the the rearview mirror in our car. It is used briefly to help us to move forward. Its aim is to help us avoid crashes. It’s the same with looking back at the past, including looking back with joy; it’s a tool to help us move forward. Let’s not live in the past, but let’s not bury it either. As we reconcile our past and learn to look back with gratitude, our lives will be more full of joy and happiness.