nce, years ago, held in the heat-soaked palm of a mid-Atlantic summer, a group of friends and I broke into a neighborhood pool after dark. We’d been drinking gin and tonics, our hands and necks sticky with lime, and the pool took on the quality of myth, no more than a rumor of relief until we found it down a cul-de-sac, the streetlights casting a limp glow across our bodies as we scaled the fence, stripped out of our clothes and slipped naked into the water.
What I remember now is like a movie about the best years of my life, the ones I’ll never get back: how we all smelled of chlorine and citrus, how we had to press our slippery skin against each other as we piled into the back seat of the truck on the way home, the fireflies and the noise of cicadas, how we all ran right up to the edge of something dangerous and woke up with hangovers and secrets.
I tell this story because it is familiar; you probably have one, too. We are all older than we used to be. We’ve all left something behind. I was once a girl who didn’t care if everyone saw her white body silhouetted against the suburban violet of a summer night. Now I do puzzles while my husband reads on the couch. When I told him I was writing a piece about the ideal relationship to have with the past, my husband laughed. “You can’t let go of anything,” he said, which is true. What about you, I asked, what about your past? “Burn it,” he said, grinning.
The artist Svetlana Boym wrote about how nostalgia is “a rebellion against time.” In the 17th century, doctors believed it to be a disease, saw our desperate clinging to the past as a pathological refusal to surrender to the inevitability of progress. But it’s not that the present is bad, per se, merely that it is different. It’s that gap that gives us pause. I know that the person I was, the one who climbed that fence, was also anxious and unhappy, panicky and sour. I know that all I wanted was to grow up. As Haley put it, “I thirst for growth and change and then turn around and mourn the versions of my life and self I clamored to escape.”
Boym draws a line between what she calls “reflective” and “restorative” nostalgia — the former “dwells in algia (aching), in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance,” while the latter is a bone-deep restlessness, an urge to go back. One is bearable, comforting even; the other drives us to call our ex at 2 a.m.
I take comfort in the past. I draw my memories around me like a warm blanket. But I also rehash and replay, question decisions, can’t get over anything, rebel against the passage of time. Clara Artschwager, a NYC-based life coach, says I’m not alone in this. “The past is especially buzzy right now — we’re all very concerned with how past events have affected us, with the damages or hurts we’re carrying around.”
But this obsessive relationship with yesteryear can keep us from seeing what is right in front of us and leave us longing for something we’ll never regain. So what is the ideal relationship to have with the past?
Wherever You Go, There You Are
“We live in a time where so much of therapy and self-care is focused on figuring out how we’ve been impacted by our parents, past relationships, all of that,” says Clara, who believes our culture’s fixation on trauma may play a role in this obsession. “Everyone is damaged. Not to be glib, but welcome to being human.”
She suggests that allowing past events to govern how we respond in the present gives our history too much power when, in truth, we are all capable of real change.
“Obviously if you have suffered a severe trauma, you have a responsibility to yourself and others to approach that with serious care,” says Clara. “But the compulsive treatment of our pasts can be really limiting, both to who you are now and to your potential for growth.” She recommends working with a professional, if necessary, to find that safe and productive space between acknowledging and understanding your past, and unhelpfully dwelling in it.
“Often, it’s just a matter of accepting that crappy stuff has happened and acknowledging how far you’ve come,” she says. “Just being able to do that is actually proof that you’ve come a long way.”
What Lies Beneath
One way of breaking free of obsessive thought patterns? Cultivating curiosity.
“We make a lot of assumptions about our pasts,” says Clara. A bad breakup can make it feel as though all future relationships are doomed, for example, and ruminating on what went wrong can lead us to believe that we’re incapable of change. But the fear that we are doomed to repeat our mistakes is super limiting. “There are so many tentacles of experience that weave their way through our lives,” says Clara, “and it’s pretty much impossible to distill any event down to one catalyst or emotion. If there’s an element of curiosity in the way you approach your past, you’re much more likely to discover new ways of thinking about what happened and how you might change your behavior in the future.
“A lot of people are fixated on the idea of closure,” Clara says. “We want to figure out how to live with an experience we might not be able to fully integrate into our narratives — like a bad relationship, a mistake made at work — but there’s really no such thing as closure.” If you’re unable to move beyond something in your past, that could be your brain’s way of telling you that there’s something happening in the present you haven’t fully come to terms with. “That’s why staying curious is so important. It’s not about trying to get over the thing, but rather about figuring out why it’s still sticky, and what we can learn about ourselves by investigating it.”
Ready to get curious? Clara recommends the practice of journaling, but says it doesn’t have to be precious. “Journaling is really just a form of acknowledgement,” she says. “You don’t need to buy a special notebook and wake up with the sun and drink lemon water. If you’re obsessing over something, just get it down on paper. Try posing it as a question — why do you think you’re going to ruin this relationship? Why are you still mulling over that fight you had with an ex?” Simply asking the question can help you see things from a new angle.
What’s So Great About Now, Anyway?
But what if you’re not haunted by the mistakes of your past? What if, instead, all you want is to go back — back to that comforting relationship, back to the city you loved and left, back to the friends now scattered across the country? As any meditation app will tell you, the truest path to happiness is living in the present. But what if the present sucks?
“While mindfulness and being present can help you appreciate the world around you,” says Clara, “there’s also real comfort in remembering good times.” The concern comes when the past becomes more potent than the present — when it eclipses what you have to be grateful for today.
“If you’re stuck in those patterns of thought, like, Life will never be that good again!, you need to remember that of course no feeling or relationship will ever be identical to another. If you’re mourning a relationship and thinking you’ll never love someone the way you loved your previous partner — well, of course you won’t, but you’ll love someone differently, with a different volume and feeling.”
If it’s a place or time of life that is holding sway, keeping you from being able to invest fully in your present circumstances, Clara suggests creating new grounding rituals to honor the things that made you. Do you miss your old spin class? Find a studio in a your new neighborhood or try another group exercise that will fill that same need. Longing for home? Cook an old favorite meal for a new friend. Feel disconnected from your former self? Create a space in your apartment where you can spend time with the totems from your past.
“Having a past is part of the mystery of being human,” Clara says. “It’s only by accepting and surrendering to that truth that we can appreciate what has made us who we are and who we can become.”
Editor’s note: The original title referred to Clara Artschwager as a therapist, we’ve updated the headline to reflect that she is a life coach and apologize for the error.
Collage by Emily Zirimis.