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Sunday, August 10, 2014

Psychotherapy Blog: How to Get "Unstuck" So You Can Free Yourself From Living in the Past

In my prior article, Getting Stuck in the Past and Dwelling on "What Could Have Been," I gave the example of a composite case to illustrate a common problem that many people have when they get stuck in the past and indulge themselves in fantasies about how wonderful life "could have been."  In this article, I'll show how therapy can help a client to overcome this problem and give some tips that I hope will be helpful.

At the point where we left off in my last article, Ann felt stuck emotionally as she pined for the life she fantasized that she could have had with Bill if only she hadn't ended their relationship several years before.

How to Get "Unstuck" So You Can Free Yourself From Living in the Past

Ann followed Bill's life on his Facebook page.   As she read about how happy he was, she regretted breaking up with him.  When she ended their relationship, she felt they each wanted different things in their lives.   But now that she was reading about how happy he was and how much fun he was having, she felt she made a mistake.  She compared her life to his and she felt her life was dull.

The worst part was seeing the pictures of Bill with his new girlfriend, which made Ann feel jealous and made her regret even more that she ended her relationship with him.  She knew that the more she looked at his Facebook page, the more unhappy she felt, but she couldn't stop herself.  It had become an obsession that she felt embarrassed about.

Since she was so focused on Bill, she wasn't giving herself a chance to get to know other men.  When she went out on dates, she compared her experience to the life she felt she could have had with Bill and each man came up short.

As further "proof" that she had made a mistake by breaking up with Bill and missed a chance to be happy, she thought about the relationships that didn't work out since she broke up with Bill.

On some level, Ann knew that she was making herself miserable, but she felt powerless to do anything about it, which is why she began therapy.

How to Get "Unstuck" So You Can Free Yourself From Living in the Past

In her therapy sessions, we worked on distinguishing her fantasies from the reality of her past experiences in her former relationship with Bill.

At the point where she broke up with him, she knew the relationship wasn't right for her. Ann was able to concede this in our sessions.  But she couldn't get over the feeling that his new girlfriend was "reaping the rewards" of a more mature, responsible Bill and that if Ann had only stuck it out, she would be happier now.  Ann was filled with regret about this.

We also talked about how someone's Facebook page isn't always a reliable source of information about how things are in his or her life.  Ann knew this in theory, but she felt sure that Bill and his new girlfriend really were having a wonderful life together--a life that she could have had with him if she hadn't  broken up with him.

Ann was aware, at least on an intellectual level, that if she was happier in her own life, she wouldn't be so focused on Bill.  Her obsession was a distraction and defense against taking responsibility for her own happiness as opposed to imagining what life could have/would have been with Bill.

Her obsession also kept her from looking at her own patterns for choosing men that resulted in unhappy relationships (see my article:  Learning to Make Better Choices in Romantic Relationships).

As Ann began focusing more on herself and less on her fantasies about Bill, she began to take steps to improve her own life.  This helped her to feel more empowered.

Since she was bored at work, she began a job search to find a job that would be more enriching.  Once she began the search, she discovered that her skills and experience were in demand, and she had her choice of several good jobs.

She also realized that she wanted to travel more, and her obsession with Bill had kept her from making plans.  So, she took a much needed vacation that she really enjoyed.

How to Get "Unstuck" So You Can Free Yourself From Living in the Past

In the meantime, she heard from a former college friend, who remained friends with Bill, that his life wasn't all that it seemed to be on social media.  Despite the happy photos that continued to appear on his Facebook page, he and his new girlfriend weren't getting along--for many of the same reasons that caused Ann to end her relationship with him.  He continued to have a hard time settling down and being responsible.  Ann also found out that he had mismanaged his business, and he was about to declare bankruptcy.

Although she was sorry to hear that Bill's life wasn't all that it seemed on Facebook, this new information from her friend was a wake up call for Ann and put to rest any illusions and fantasies that she had.

How to Get "Unstuck" So You  Can Free Yourself From Living in the Past

Once she was able to put her fantasies about Bill aside, she became more fully engaged in her own life.  She became more open about looking at her pattern of choosing men.  She also became more open with the men that she was meeting and stopped comparing them to fantasies.

As Ann became more involved in her own life, things began to improve for her.

Some Tips on Getting "Unstuck" to Free Yourself From Living in the Past:
  • It's easy to get caught up in fantasies and remain tied to a past that no longer exists (and, possibly, never existed outside of your fantasies).  Living life in the present is harder.
  • Staying focused on the past keeps you from making changes in the present.
  • Remember that people's Facebook page often isn't a true reflection of what's really going on in their lives.
  • Remember that your thoughts and feelings aren't "facts" and what you imagine to be true might not be the case.  Just because you believe something to be true doesn't make it true.
  • If you find yourself obsessively dwelling on the past and telling yourself that you could have been happier in a relationship or situation from the past, rather than giving these thoughts more power, be as objective as you can and question your thoughts.  
  • Ask yourself if these obsessive thoughts are serving another purpose--like keeping you from being proactive to make changes in your life or if you're punishing yourself with these thoughts.
  • Ask yourself if you're remembering the past accurately or are you "rewriting history" to make it look better than it was in actuality.
  • Talk to friends that know you well, listen to what they have to say and consider their perspective.
  • If talking to friends doesn't help, consider getting help from a licensed mental health professional.
Getting Help in Therapy
As I mentioned in Part 1 of this topic, getting stuck in fantasies about the past is a common problem that many people have and it's often hard to see when you're in the middle of it.

A licensed mental health professional who has worked with clients on this issue can help you to free yourself so you're empowered to make changes in your life rather than dwelling on the past.

About Me
I'm a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: