It’s been likened to another country. But as destinations go, the past is better for a visit than a place to dwell. Ruminating on what has gone before can be like wandering barefoot through a field strewn with tacks; it’s difficult to carry on too long without experiencing an unexpected jab of loss, regret or mournful nostalgia. So why do we do it?
Reviewing the past for information is natural and constructive. We use it to find situations similar to what we’re currently facing, to understand how things developed over time or discover strategies that have worked before. But when we describe someone as dwelling on the past or living in the past, we’re usually talking about their returning to certain memories over and over again like a bookmarked page. No new information is coming out.
One possible explanation for this could be a variation of what Gestalt psychotherapists call “unfinished business” where past experiences intrude into the present because they didn’t reach a satisfactory conclusion the first time around. A crucial element, such as an explanation, acknowledgement or apology is missing which keeps the person from being able to fully move on.
Another form of dwelling in the past might be better called dwelling on it. An event, often a perceived injustice, is frequently recounted or cast up. It might also happen in reverse, where someone returns to the past from regret over something he or she didn’t do or say.
But not all dwelling in the past has to do with regrets or painful memories. Some people continually revisit happy stages of their lives i.e. the good old days. For them it’s possibly the present rather than the past which may be difficult or unfulfilling and the days of yore are like a nicer place to live in comparison.
These examples are so diverse it seems difficult to identify any common themes that would shed light on why some people keep the past so alive. But there are some similarities.
By definition, returning to the past means leaving the present behind. So perhaps the more important question to is not “why is someone dwelling in the past?” but “why are they disengaging with the present?”. This opens the possibility that people dwell on the past because they find something in the present unfulfilling, uncomfortable or confusing and an earlier time somehow holds the comfort or clarity they’re searching for.
The voice of the past often provides messages about present feelings. Someone who speaks at length about the days when people never needed to lock their doors may be feeling quite vulnerable in their present environment. A person who continually recounts old adventures could see their present life as lacking excitement or freedom. People can also return to a time when they enjoyed a greater degree of success, respect or belonging in order to re-affirm their identity or restore their self-esteem.
Even old hurts or regrets can be a reaction against the present. When a spouse casts up an ancient mistake in the midst of a current argument he or she may be needing to feel in the right and does so by retrieving a time “when I was clearly right and you were clearly wrong”. Regret can cause a good deal of misery but it can also preserve someone’s belief that a happier or more successful state of affairs (than they face today) was at least possible. A similar process could be taking place when people dwell on past events they feel have disadvantaged them in some way; it’s a way to defend themselves from harmful self-rebuke for not feeling as positive or accomplishing as much as they’d like.
But dwelling in the past can involve how the person perceives the future as well as the present. When people believe there are things they can do to improve their current circumstances their gaze is fixed forward, not back. It’s when someone doesn’t know how to address the situation or their feelings, or doesn’t think it will work, that the past becomes more salient. This can also hold the seeds for helping people come out of the past. If they become aware of how they’re feeling in the present and about the present, and find ways to change things for the better the past can return to its rightful place in their ongoing story.