A quick way to find the answer? Give your memories a reality by balancing the positive with the negative, or perhaps the neutral. If you remember a past « perfect » relationship, say, Frank recommends identifying (aloud or in a journal) five things about it that weren’t exactly the stuff of romance novels. Ditto for old “dream” jobs, or a city you lived in and left for valid reasons. The goal, she says, is not to dwell on the negativity but to balance the good memories with the not so good (or average) so you get a clearer picture of what really happened. . That way, you’re less likely to romanticize the past and feel like the present isn’t up to par.
Recognize what you are Really missing.
Look at your seemingly dreamy memories and ask yourself what, exactly, you miss about those times. “Maybe you felt loved or maybe you felt excited about what you were doing,” Nancy Colier, LCSWauthor of I Can’t Stop Thinking: How to Get Rid of Anxiety and Break Free from Obsessive Rumination, says SELF. Identifying the roots of your nostalgia can help you recreate similar situations that can bring you some of the same joyful feelings you yearn for.
For example, if you crave the sense of community you felt when you and your co-workers went to the local pub every Thursday after work, maybe you can create a similar get-together at your new job. Or if you remember the musty smell of newsprint in the neighborhood comic book store you frequented when you were a preteen, schedule time to reread your old favorites. Do you miss having a partner to go out and travel with? It might be time to pursue a new relationship (or just book a vacation with your best friends if that’s the passport stamp you’re looking for).
Of course, you may not be able to recreate exactly the same circumstances from your past, due to age, new responsibilities, or the loss of a person or pet, for example. In these cases, Colier recommends indulging in compassion for the “process of change and loss of identity” that is part of the human experience. « Maybe you can’t go to college and run that triathlon anymore, » she says. « This human journey is filled with fluidity and loss, and change is the only constant. » Just acknowledging this and acknowledging the beauty of the past can help you stay connected to it and bring you peace. « You might think, ‘Wow, what a time,’ and just because I can’t live it now doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in me, » she says.
Don’t force gratitude.
Taking inventory of the things you’re grateful for can have mental health benefits, like reduced stress and better sleep, as SELF has previously reported. But it can be difficult to foster gratitude when your situation is, in fact, quite terrible. Maybe your past really was much better: you have lived most of your life in perfect health, for example, and you are suddenly faced with a serious illness, or you have lost a loved one and your world has felt better with him. In this case, accepting that the present is uncomfortable is a better strategy than forcing yourself to see a « silver lining, » Frank says. This type of denial is a form of toxic positivity that will only invalidate your very real pain and keep you stuck, she adds.
If you’re trapped in a more positive past because your current reality is trash, instead of making a daily gratitude list, Frank suggests trying to accept that today may be difficult, while acknowledging that it won’t last forever. « Joy will return, » she said. « But if you try to make yourself feel joy, you won’t succeed. » Conversely, if you’re kind to yourself and feel all of your feelings, you’re more likely to heal and move on, she adds.
Bring yourself in the moment.
One way to detach from the past is to plant yourself firmly in the present through mindfulness, Coleman says. Formal meditation is one way to do this, but if meditation just isn’t your thing, you can experiment with other methods. You can try a guided journaling exercise, for example, or simply be more mindful while you eat, taking your time and paying attention to sensations and flavors.