Everyone is guilty of lingering on the past, and there is nothing wrong with lingering on the past per se, so long as by lingering on the past we are doing so in a positive manner. For example, lingering on the past as a means to use that past productively as a means to create a better future, is not a problem, because that way you are lingering in a positive manner.
The problem many of us have, and I used to be one of those that did have this problem, is more often than not when we linger on the past, when we linger on the could have beens, the if only’s, rather than doing so productively we do so unproductively. Or rather we lament what happened in the past, and worse than that as part of our lamenting we have a tendency to always put a positive spin on things but in a negative and unproductive way, so for example, we say to ourselves if only this had not happened everything could have been amazing. That means we think that if only the negative thing hadn’t happened then something positive would have happened, when we should be thinking, okay, the negative things happened, how can I use this to grow and create a more positive future.
The latter is productive lingering, the former unproductive. And that unproductive lingering has the power to stop a person who could live a happy life from doing so, and it does this by trapping a person in a negative past that they believe has stopped them from having a positive present. That means they are dooming themselves to a life of living in the past, which rather ironically is the actual thing that is stopping them from having a positive present, meaning the past is not the problem, the negative lingering on it is.
What makes this scenario expressively frustrating, is that the purpose of memories are not to remember the past, but to learn from it. That means memories are supposed to exist to benefit us, despite this it is a fair bet that a lot of people have memories that feel anything but beneficial, and it is a fair bet that everyone at times lingers on those memories. When this happens something that exists for the sole purpose of helping us to live better lives, is actually hindering our lives.
This begs the question of course how do you stop lingering on the past in an unproductive manner, and start using your memories in the way that they are actually designed to be used? Not easily is the answer, but it is possible, and the first thing that I have found that really helped me was understanding that, everybody’s journey is different, meaning every person will have to find their own path for how to use the past to benefit them rather than hinder them. But in my efforts to use my past in a more productive manner, I did find that learning some truths about just how misguided unproductive lingering on the past is, and that’s what I’m going to talk about in this post. Or rather I’m going to talk about how I learned to turn negative lingering into positive lingering.
Why putting a negative positive spin on your past is misguided
Many people, and I was once one of these, frequently think that if a negative event from their past had not happened then their lives would be better, but how do we know that? If the bad thing had not happened, how do we know that something even worse would not have happened in its place? For example, that girl that cheated on you and broke your heart, the normal thing to think is if only you had not got with her or if only she had not cheated then maybe things would have been better, but how do you know? How do you know that if you had not got with her and had got with someone else that that person would not have broken your heart even more, how do you know that if she had not cheated that you would have not gone on to live a far less happy life than the one you are going to as a result of her cheating?
The simple answer is, you don’t. For example, I have spoken previously about how when I first injured my wrists back in 2008, due to needing surgery and the length of the rehab ahead, it cost me the chance of attending an interview for a very lucrative and high-end postgraduate job down in London. One of the big problems I had was that I used to linger on how different my life would have been had I not injured my wrists, and I had been able to attend that interview, and the way I would linger would be thinking along the lines of that if only I had not injured my wrists and I had been able to attend that interview then my life would be much better than it presently is.
To cut a long story short, due to bullying I was basically a school dropout, but I’d worked unbelievably hard to get to university, and I had worked harder still to get a chance at such an interview, and then it was taken from me. A fact that to say the least was pretty hard to take, what made it even harder still to take was the fact that since then due to the recurring nature of the injuries to my wrists, I have never had a chance of getting into the industry.
I don’t want to linger on that, but notice how easily I could and how what started as a simple statement can spiral into a pool of negativity, and notice how easy it would be to continue the above thought process which if I did so would inevitably lead to self-pity. All it takes is a single negative thought to start a spiral. Anyhow, back on point, what I want to do is for the interests of this post, imagine that I made it to that job interview. Because here is the thing, if I had made it to that job interview how do I know that I would have got the job? I don’t, I know that eventually if I’d stayed fit and healthy that I would have got a job in that industry but maybe it would have been a rubbish one, one that I hated? And perhaps even if I had got the job, maybe I would have been rubbish at it. I don’t believe that I would have been, but how can I be certain?
And I know what you’re thinking, but because I never got the chance I will never know, but that is exactly the point. I will never know, therefore, thinking about it, lingering on it, would be nothing more than a waste of energy. And even if I had got it and had made a success of it, how do I know that I would have been happy? I don’t.
All those uncertainties, none of which I will ever find any certainty over because it is impossible to. The only certainty that I have is what actually happened. The reality. That means that if I sit around lingering on what could have been if only I had not injured my wrists, I could be sitting around wishing for a life that may have led to me being super happy but also may have led to me being extremely unhappy, or maybe even extremely dead. Yes, I just said extremely dead, how do I know that while driving down to the interview that I would not have had a fatal car crash? The fact is I don’t, I don’t know anything about what would have happened if I’d not injured my wrists and I’d been able to attend that interview, all I know is what did happen. Therefore, to linger on anything else would be and is pointless.
Hopefully you are able to see the point that I am making, all that matters is what actually happened and what can happen, the reason being you don’t know what could have been only what has been and what can be. Meaning thinking about what could have been if it is affecting you in a negative manner is simply wasted energy because you will never know what could have been, only what has been and can be.
You don’t know what could have been, only what has been and what can be
Did you read the above title, even though you most likely will have, I believe understanding its meaning to be so important, that I’m going to say it again: you don’t know what could have been, only what has been and what can be. I’ll say it again because it is just so so so important, just so so so important, you don’t know what could have been, only what has been and what can be.
So many people get lost in thinking about what has been and could have been when they should be thinking about what has been and could be, I know this because I used to be like this. For example, a big factor in the problems I had with my wrists is the fact that after completing my initial rehab back in 2012 I had no real knowledge of how to manage living with a torn scapholunate ligament in my right wrist. Because of this I tried to go back to how I lived prior to being injured in the first place. Obviously, I knew there was a weakness and I knew I had to be aware of it, but I did not know a lot of things that I should have known, things that if I had perhaps known could have meant that things would have been different than how they turned out.
But even if I had known these things there is no guarantee that the outcome would have been any different. In fact, it might have been worse, how do I know? I don’t, also if I had known these things perhaps I would have been held back from gaining that full recovery that I always hoped to achieve. By not taking the risk of going after the full recovery I would have made certain that I never got it. So by trying to go back to normal maybe I had done the right thing, it just didn’t work out.
And besides it has to be remembered that, and I’m going to cut a long story short here, if it had not been for a systematic failing by doctors and physiotherapists my left wrist would never have been injured in the first place.
But then maybe it would have been, maybe a year later I would have had a fall and injured by left wrist the same way my right wrist was injured? How do I know? I don’t. I followed the advice of doctors and physios and injured my left wrist, maybe if I had not, a year later I fall and injure my left wrist. Who knows? Not me.
How you look at things changes everything, and sometimes decisions that can seem like the wrong ones actually could be the right ones you just don’t realise it because all you can see is that the outcome was not the one that you were hoping for. For example, in this case I followed the advice of the physio, that turned out to be a mistake. But here’s the thing, I was seen by a physio who I should not have been seen by, I did not know this at the time, the referral had been messed up. It is what it is. But the person who is attempting to help me rehab my wrists in the present is a physio, just a different one, if I did not listen to him I would likely still have absolutely zero use of my hands, because I am listening there is hope that I may someday get a really good recovery.
So I was right to follow the physio’s advice, I was just seen by the wrong physio. I could not have known that. So why linger on it? I used to linger on it, but now I use it as a lesson. Always make certain that the person you are being seen by is a person who knows how to deal with the type of injury that you have.
In fact, if the physio you are being seen by is relatively inexperienced, and tells you that the torn ligament in your wrist is not the problem with your wrist, despite the fact that all the evidence tells you that it is, don’t listen. Also, if you follow that same physio’s advice, injure your left wrist as a result and that physio tells you to keep doing the exercises, and start going to the gym, definitely don’t listen.
Sorry, starting to rant there. But see how easy it is for such thoughts to spiral out of control, right now I could start ranting and raving about how if it had not been for a systematic failing by the doctors and physios, if it had not been for this physio, then in 2020 I would not have lost for a period of time the complete use of my hands, also I would not right now still have potentially years of rehab ahead of me.
But where would such thinking get me, trapped in a negative past, that’s where. Which is why I think it’s far better to think more along the lines of the following, I had this bad experience, but I learned from it and as a result of it was able to find a person who had an intricate knowledge of the type of injury that I had, and this person was able to help me, and as a result I was able to help myself. And though I have a long journey ahead of me, I’m on the right track and because of what has happened there is much that can happen, and what can happen can be great.
I can lament what has happened, imagine that all these amazing things would have happened if it had not happened, or I can accept what has happened, learn from it, and imagine all the amazing things that I can make happen as a result of it. Which is the better option?
Sometimes our decisions in hindsight look wrong but in reality were right
The fact is it is much easier to think, when pondering a decision that we have made in the past, that the decision was wrong based solely on the fact that the outcome was not the one we hoped for, than it is to accept that we made the right decision but we were just unlucky. Consider this, if you bet on a horse in the Grand National, what are the odds that your bet is going to come good? I don’t need the bookies to tell me the answer, because the answer I am looking for is whether it is certain that my bet will come good. Or rather can I be one hundred percent certain that I will win? The answer is no. I can’t be. The proof is of course that not even races that are fixed are one hundred percent guaranteed.
But let’s keep with this for a moment, perhaps you have placed your bet on the race favourite, perhaps you have done much research as well, and feel absolutely certain that this horse is going to win, perhaps this horse is so much faster than the other horses that it seems impossible for it to lose. But then guess what, it’s raining and the horse slips and loses the race. Does that mean that you made the wrong decision in backing that horse just because you didn’t win the bet?
No, not at all, the reason being under the same thought process, if the horse had won then you would have made the right choice. What makes a decision the right one is not the outcome, but your reasoning for making the decision in the first place, and if in hindsight you decide that your reasoning was poor, then you haven’t lost something, you have gained something. You know you need to improve the reasoning behind your decisions so that you can make better decisions in the future.
Of course it is not always easy to know whether your decision was the right one, but again if that is the case then it is pointless lingering on whether or not it was. Just accept that the outcome was not what you wanted, if there’s anything you can learn from it, then learn it, if there’s not just accept it for what it is and look to the future.
Most will think that this is easier said than done, and that’s because it is, but I’m going to give you an example of why it is much smarter to do this than do not do it, no matter how hard it is. Up until last year I wondered if I’d made a mistake by opting out of having the torn ligament in my right wrist rebuilt through surgery, and I often used to lament myself for not having opted to have it done. The risks involved through the surgery for rebuilding the scapholunate ligament were large and at the time I simply didn’t want to take those risks. Because of this I used to lament myself every time it flared up, thinking if only you had not “bottled” it things would have been different. And that’s what I would think, you bottled it. Not that you made an informed decision based upon the risk factors involved, you bottled it.
Except here’s the caveat, I saw the specialist last year and he said that the surgery actually is a dud and is no longer recommended, and that’s because at best it doesn’t work and at worst it makes things worse. Which means that me opting against the surgery actually turned out to be a smart move, and more than that an informed move. That means that all that energy I wasted lamenting the fact I had not had the surgery, was wasted energy.
Any time you lament yourself for a decision that you made in the past, you will be most likely, unless you are learning from it, wasting that energy. Meaning it is far better to either learn from your past decisions so that you can make better ones in the future, or to just let the past be the past and focus on what is in the present and what can be in the future.
If all we ever do is look at the past and think that if things had gone differently then our lives would have been so much better, we rob ourselves of the power of making our lives in the present and future so much better. And considering how we have no idea what would have happened if our pasts had gone differently, it makes lingering on them in such a negative way all the more counter-productive.
Literally every single event in your past no matter how bad could have in some way saved your life. You got run over by a car, but you survived. If you had not been run over by that car perhaps a different car would have run you over, but perhaps if it had you would have died. That means by being run over by that first car, your life was saved.
But then maybe it wasn’t? Who knows, you don’t, I don’t, no one does, and that is exactly the point. Which is why it is far better to use your past as a means to make a better present. And in my view the way you do that is by using your past as a means of learning. If something happened, you can always learn from it, if the decision you made that led to the outcome that you did not want, was a good decision but just one of those things, then you’ve learned that what you made was a good decision, that’s a positive. If you decide the decision you made was a poor one, and with a different mindset you could have made a better one, then use that to learn how to make better ones in the future.
But at the same time don’t lament the fact that you made what you now deem to be a poor decision in the first place, the reason being if you had not made it, you would not have learned how to make a better one in the future. So that poor decision has improved your life. It may not feel like it yet, but once you start using your newfound knowledge to make better decisions, the proof will be in your future.
And while on the same train of thought, also don’t fall into the trap of hindsight decision-making i.e. if you had known something then you would never make that decision. Always judge how good or bad your decisions were based on what knowledge you had at the time you made the decision, and unless it was possible for you to have got that knowledge, if based on the knowledge you had at the time, you deem it a good decision, then just accept that it was what it was. If you deem that you could have got the knowledge, the make certain next time that you do, in which case you will make a better decision. Which is a positive.
The way I see it your past, no matter what happened in it, exists for the sole purpose of being used to create a better present and future, meaning if you always look at your past as a means of creating a better future, then your past will always be a positive no matter what happened in it. And if your past is always a positive it can never be a negative, meaning you can never become trapped in it.
Scientists and top psychologists also back this up, the reason being the long held belief of the science of the mind community, is that memories don’t exist as a means of remembering the past, they exist as a means of extracting from past events knowledge that helps us to live a better present. So the only reason we have memories is as a means of learning from them. And the belief is that once we have learned from them, it becomes impossible for them to cause us any pain because the memories have served their purpose.
So if you ever find yourself trapped in the past, thinking negatively about it, lamenting what could have been if only, maybe what you need to do is what I now do, change the way you think about your past and remind yourself always, that my past is the path to my future, and as long as I’m alive my learnings from my past will give me the chance to make my future a happy one. All I have to do is stop thinking about it negatively, and start thinking about how to turn it into a positive. And everything can be a positive, you just have to give it the chance to be.
That’s all for me for today, stay safe!