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Is Looking Back Helpful or Hurtful?

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

Goodbye you terrible, rotten, no good, very bad year! 2020, you won’t be missed. As we come to the end of the year it can be fun and useful to look back and think about your experiences and what you have learned. There are, however, a lot of traps that lie in taking a look back like this. The dangers that are present for reflecting like this are that we can often be very harsh critics of ourselves, we can also create meaning out of things that may not be there, and frankly it can be exhausting to focus on difficult times. So, how do we do our best to prevent these issues from occurring and dragging us down? Let’s take them one at a time:

           There is a key to looking back at experiences and events that have passed in our lives, it is important to recognize that all it is, is information. We want to look at is as data that helps us understand what has been healthy and what hasn’t. We need to do our best to look at this without judgement. What this looks like in practice in a way that is judgmental and unhealthy is to say, “I cannot believe I was stupid enough to stay in a relationship with that person.” Or “I am such an idiot for leaving my job.” Or “It was so dumb of my to drink as much as I did.” Instead we want to recognize all of these events, what we were feeling at the time that led us to do the things we did, and how we feel about it now reflecting on it, are all pieces of information. That makes these thoughts sound more like, “Wow, I was really in a difficult place to feel like staying with that partner was the best thing for me. I think I was lonely, and, was struggling with confidence so I couldn’t see it wasn’t working.” And “Leaving my job was difficult, maybe it wasn’t ultimately healthy for me to leave the way I did, but I couldn’t have known that at the time, and I will keep trying to figure out what works best.” And lastly, “I was struggling with my drinking, it got me to some places I don’t think I am okay with. I need to pay attention to what got me there to learn from it and get this to a healthier place.”

           Another important piece of this that is at play with the previously mentioned view as experiences as information, is that we want to keep an eye out for patterns or themes. As we spend time really examining things, we often start to see that a lot of the things that we did that we thought were unique feelings or experiences, actually all tie back to the same thing. Staying in that relationship, abruptly leaving your job, and drinking too much may all have a common thread. Also, maybe there isn’t a common thread, that’s possible too. It’s not always that everything comes together so neatly, but it is helpful to discover that information as well. Then we can take all of this information and start building toward something that feels healthier for us. We start to say things like, “If I did those things for the same reason, I need to work on that underlying issue. If I made decisions that got me to a place I am feeling I don’t want, what is making me feel that way? How do I move toward something healthier?”

           It can be very helpful and healthy to look back and learn from our experiences, but we can often skew negatively if we are not happy with how things turned out. So, let’s take a look back and take all the information in without judgement and learn from it. Connect the dots of what did and didn’t work, what led you to do things or feel things and try to understand if that is healthy or not and start to build it up in a healthier. 2020 was a very difficult year for many reasons, but today is as good of time as any to learn from it and grow whether it is the end of the year or not. Lastly, 2020 was incredibly difficult, forgive yourself and allow grace for not being perfect; nobody was.

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