Why Your Past Matters

The earlier parts of your life story have an impact on the outcome

Posted May 09, 2016

Source: Antonioguillem / Adobe Stock

Every once in a while, something in my life goes badly enough that I wish I’d known at the time what I know now, so I could go back and do things differently.

But then I ask myself, ‘If there were a way to travel back in time, would I actually re-live the entire day just to fix that one thing?’ The answer is almost always No. Usually it just doesn’t seem worth it.

Dwelling on the past is something many Americans don’t like to do; we’re eager to wipe the slate clean and start fresh on a path toward a tomorrow we hope will be brighter than yesterday.

But pushing forward without a backward glance can be hazardous to our mental health. Let me give you four reasons.

First, to paraphrase the philosopher George Santayana, if we don’t take time to reflect on our behavior, we may unwittingly repeat it. This is true for other people’s actions as well as our own; if we don’t think about how badly we were treated, and make choices about what to do to protect ourselves next time, we’re vulnerable to being treated that way again.

We must remember to press “Pause” to intentionally focus on the past, because how often we pause and how deeply we reflect directly affects our destiny. If life is an exam, that’s how to study for it.

A second danger in the “out with the old, in with the new” worldview is that we don’t get a chance to heal. We end up going through life at less than full capacity.

Imagine if you broke a bone and then, not wanting to dwell on the injury, went out and played rugby the next day. How well do you think that would go for you and your broken bone?

It’s a ridiculous thing to do, yet people do it all the time with wounds that aren’t physical. Instead of constructively wallowing in the bad stuff that happens to us, we try to shake off an upset as soon as possible so we can “get past it.”

Getting past an emotional injury is like getting past winter; the only way past it is through it.

Emotional injuries need time-outs, just as physical injuries do. We can’t process emotional wounds if we’re busy focusing on the future, trying to shove aside any thoughts about the bad stuff that happened “back then” (or yesterday).

Third, racing toward the future at the expense of reflecting on the past robs us of our identity. We’re made up of DNA and time. Our genes appear to determine much about our personalities, but the events and people that populate our lives, and how we respond to them, create the rest of our uniqueness.

When we honor the influence of our personal history, we benefit from the lessons that have shaped who we are.

Fourth, emotional maturity requires that we acknowledge where we’ve been by pondering the past. We’re only as old inside as the wounded child who sustained our oldest hurts – neglect, ridicule, criticism, sexual abuse, etc. If we hide our personal history from ourselves by insisting on focusing at all times on the present and/or the future, we can’t help that child heal and grow into the adult we’re meant to become.

Our entire life story, not just where we’re going but where we’ve been, deserves our curiosity and attention. I’m not saying we should live in the past, only that it’s far too valuable to be relegated to the dust heap.