NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Getting Stuck in the Past and Dwelling on "What Could Have Been"

It's so easy to get stuck in the past with endless thoughts about "what could have been" and lose sight of "what is."  There are so many websites for reunions of all kinds, including classmates and sites to find former romantic partners (see my article:  Relationships: Romantic Reconnections).   It's no wonder that many people get stuck yearning for and idealizing how they think things "could have been" in their lives as opposed to dealing with how life is now.

Getting Stuck in the Past and Dwelling on "What Could Have Been"

Of course, there's nothing wrong with nostalgia and remembering good times.  These memories can help to get us through difficult times and remind us that there can still be good times ahead of us when we're dealing with current challenges.

The problem isn't about nostalgia.  The problem arises when people get stuck in fantasies about the past.

Let's take a look at some of the reasons why getting stuck in the past is a problem:
  • Your heart and mind aren't as open to new experiences 
  • Instead of creating new experiences, you're reliving and reinforcing the old ones in your head
  • You can lose your enthusiasm for life
  • Instead of feeling empowered to make things happen in your current life, you can feel helpless as you tell yourself that things will never be as good as before
  • You're not taking responsibility for changing things that you're unhappy about now
  • You lose sight of the fact that you're indulging in fantasies and fantasies are often better than reality ever might have been
  • You're not growing and developing as a person
  • Your identity can become diminished by your fantasies about "how wonderful life could have been...if only…"
The following vignette, which is a composite of many cases, illustrates why getting stuck in the past is problematic:

Ten years prior to coming to therapy, Ann ended her relationship with Bill because she realized, after seeing him during their last two years in college, that they both wanted very different things in life.

Whereas she wanted to move back to New York, get an apartment and start her career, he wanted to rent a van and travel all over the country, taking whatever jobs he found along the way.  She also realized that they had other fundamental differences that would have made a life together difficult.

For several months after the breakup, Bill continued to pursue Ann, contacting her from wherever he was and trying to persuade her to get back together.  But even though Ann still loved Bill and the breakup was hard for her too, she knew, at the time, that she made the right decision.  She wished Bill well and she started dating other men.

Ten years later, Ann had a successful career and she was doing well financially, but her relationships weren't working out.  After the last breakup, Ann found herself dwelling on memories of her time with Bill, especially when she was bored at work or home alone on the weekend.

It had been several years since she had heard from Bill directly, but she followed him on his Facebook page.  She knew from Facebook that he started his own tour company and he conducted tours all over the world.

The places were so exotic and colorful.  He seemed to be having a lot of fun, and Ann wondered if she had made a mistake in ending their relationship.  Since their breakup, there had been no one in her life as interesting and fun loving as Bill.

Getting Stuck in the Past and Dwelling on "What Could Have Been"

Just prior to coming to therapy, Ann found out on Facebook that Bill now had a new girlfriend.  She surprised herself with how jealous she felt, after all these years, about this new relationship.  But, it was undeniable--as she looked at their happy pictures online, she was becoming increasingly obsessed with Bill and found herself yearning for him and their days together.

Not only did Ann think about him during the day, but she also had dreams about him at night where they were back together and happy.

She couldn't understand what was happening to her.  Even though she knew she was torturing herself by continuing to look at his Facebook page, she couldn't stop herself--she felt like she needed to know (see my article:  Stalking Your Ex on Social Media).

Ann began feeling increasingly sad and disappointed about her own personal life.  Her friends introduced her to new men, but she never gave them a chance.  She compared each of them to the life she imagined she could have had with Bill and they all came up short.

Next Article:
In my next article, I'll continue this topic and discuss how Ann was helped in therapy to get unstuck.

Getting Help in Therapy
Getting stuck by dwelling on how good life "could have been"is a common problem that many people have.

Rather than remaining stuck, you can get help from a licensed mental health professional who can help you to understand why you're stuck and help you to get free so you can lead a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am 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 (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.