The Psychology of why People Dwell in the Past

While studying for my master’s degree in family psychology and working at the same time on writing people’s biographies, I read a book that claimed that stories are the basic unit of human understanding. At first, I was skeptical, but as my work on clients life stories progressed, I started to realize the importance of storytelling and stories in general on the human psyche. People make sense out of their lives by the stories they tell others and the stories they tell themselves. But stories are the by-product of past human experience. Try telling a story about the future and see if anyone will listen to you. Then, try out an ongoing present-tense commentary and see how long friends stick around. Life stories captivate and good life stories are told again and again. Indeed, the greatest life stories that people tell are very well-rehearsed as other people naturally want to listen.

But no one likes to hear the same story twice. Even great stories can be boring the second time around.

Life is like a really well-written story. There is a setting, characters, and a plot as well as a beginning, middle, and an end. Some people have truly great life-stories, while others, in fact most people, have life stories that resemble Little Golden Book tales like, Bunny Finds a Home or The Wait-for-Me Kitten. They replay the same plot over and over again in their lives, sometimes commissioning different people to play different characters their life story or moving to different locations to mix up the setting a bit. But ultimately, people do tend to dwell on the same plot over and over again. They live in the past repeating the same storyline because the past feels safe, the past is predictable, and the past is quite comfortable compared to the alternative.

But what about people who have had unpleasant past plots play out in their lives? It seems like those people would want to move on, leave the past behind, and go forward. Often, people with an unpleasant past do want to leave it behind, but with the mistaken belief that the future will come and sweep them off their feet if they happen to be standing in the right place at the right time. I mean, they say they want to leave the past behind, but really, they just want to talk about the past without people thinking they’re dwelling in the past. There’s a part of each of us that knows that dwelling on the past does not help us progress toward bigger better plots in our life stories. Yet, we find ourselves, as humans gravitating toward people who are willing to hear us tell the same stories over and over again.

What makes a person choose a Little Golden Book life over The Grapes of Wrath? The obvious answer is that Little Golden Books all have happy, predictable endings whereas The Grapes of Wrath has a number of twists and turns and uncertain moments leading up to a provocative end. Although we all know that The Grapes of Wrath was an important novel that spurred important thoughts and changed attitudes that reverberated across the country, most people would rather stick to what they know. And what they know is what they’ve already experienced in the past. It takes energy to come up with a new plot for a life story. Often, early in a person’s adult life, plot will just happen and thereafter, people believe that plot will always just happen to them. But in reality, that first plot was merely character development. Plot is the stuff that people set in motion once they’ve developed a little character. Many people never get to that part in their life story because character development is hard. Often character development is uncomfortable. Many times, people will focus on the flaws in their character rather than their character’s strengths, thereby shooting themselves in the foot before they can set out on that quest for the Holy Grail.

The psychological reasons why people dwell in the past are infinite and varied, although they all come down to the fact that people unconsciously fear and simultaneously seek to master certain life events that trouble them. By repeating troublesome life events over and over again, and staying mentally, spiritually, and emotionally fixated on these past life events, people are able to work toward mastery, much as a young child works toward mastery of his or her times tables by practicing them again and again. There are rare instances when it is necessary for a person to get some kind of help in overcoming the past life events that troubled them. But generally, fixation on events that happened in the past is a choice. Repeating the same plot is also a choice, even if it is not a conscious one. And although such judgment may sound harsh, the reality is that since it is a choice to dwell in the past, people who have a habit of dwelling in the past are blessed with the wonderful alternative of choosing something different.

When I wrote people’s life stories and analyzed them years ago, I found that generally, my clients were repeating the same plot over and over again. The plot was weak, the setting was so-so, and character development was poor all because my clients dwelt so heavily on the past. I could have diagnosed one or two of them with post-traumatic stress disorder, quite a lot of them with depression or anxiety. All of these disorders linking up nicely with the fact that these people were not moving forward with their lives. The psychology behind dwelling in the past can be reduced down to mere choice. Every person is given an opportunity to develop their character through difficulty early in life. Some people choose to use these experiences to develop fascinating characters, while others choose to become embittered by early character development in their infant plot. Dwelling in the past does nothing to move a person’s life forward, or the lives of those with whom he or she touches. The future is where we’ll find our goals and aspirations all shiny and unscathed.. Indeed, the present has far more potential even still as a comfortable, though constantly fleeting focal point.

Life should be lead as though it were being read. Insofar as one chooses to dwell in the past, there will be no new stories to tell, no new plots that unfold. And although telling stories is an important part of human interaction, telling the same story twice makes it very clear where the story is going.