Humans love reminiscing about the past. We go nuts for nostalgia. Think about the popularity of ‘reminiscence therapy’ at senior care homes; the commercial success of university reunions; and the revitalisation of cringe-worthy music from our youth that we no longer like but can’t resist singing. (This happened to me last night when I heard this song playing).
When we’re recounting a story about our past, we tend to make a few tweaks. Like in photography, we focus on the best aspects, filter out the undesirable negatives and add a few embellished special effects. Selective edits cast the past in a better light than it deserves.
Our tendency to romanticise the past makes for fascinating story times with grandparents. But it can also complicate our ability to follow through on an intended Big Change in our lives. Feeling a strong, magnetic pull to the past can lead us to try to reverse that change, no matter how illogical, destructive or impossible that might be.
“You’re rekindling the relationship with your ex-partner? But you said you had nothing in common and couldn’t stand each other!”
“You’re going back to your old job? But you hated it! You’d been trying to quit for years before you finally resigned!”
“You wish you were a teenager again? But you were angry, depressed and couldn’t wait to grow up!”
A familiar story?
If not, get some more honest friends. It’s human nature to edit the way we recall our pasts, and we have built-in cognitive biases that help us do this more easily.
Biased against cognitive bias
Cognitive biases are sneaky subconscious errors in our thinking. Having them is like being in a co-dependent relationship: they’re responsible for much of our human irrationality, but we rely on them to simplify and make sense of the complex world.
We have at least three cognitive biases that help us convince ourselves that life was better before a Transition:
The decline bias: we don’t usually like change – even when it’s desperately needed. And when that change happens, we tend to prefer the way things were before. Hence the ‘good old days’ effect.
The confirmation bias: we search for and focus on information that confirms our worldview. We’re so good at doing this that when we’re presented with solid facts that challenge our beliefs, we often strengthen our previous false convictions. …Politics…
The narrative bias: we create stories and patterns out of the information we receive, so that it makes sense. If any of the facts don’t support our story, we dismiss them. We like a neat, linear, logical cause-effect relationship.
Thanks to our cognitive wiring, even if we make a change that we desperately want, we have a strong built-in tendency to question it. We tend to prefer our life before the change; selectively recall information that supports that false preference; and then create a seamless story that ties it all together neatly. We align our narrative with the perception of ‘self’ that our ego wants to have, and how we’re feeling and behaving at that time we recount it. During a transition, this revising process leads us to the Nostalgia Trap: one of the many magnetic pulls back to our old, familiar lives. Enter reversal, regression, relapse.
How to avoid the nostalgia trap
“Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” – George Ball
If you’ve fallen into the nostalgia trap, and have returned straight back to where you started on your transition journey, be kind to yourself. It’s a subconscious process, and (like most things) it’s much easier to notice when somebody else has done it!
Awareness is a critical first step. Being aware of our cognitive biases allows us to examine our decision-making processes from different angles, and challenge our thinking. Perceptive friends, coaches and most mothers can also help us see our situations with a more accurate mirror.
Second, we can try to incorporate our feelings when we retell stories. Our emotional memories are often more accurate than our filtered thoughts.
Third, we can try to stay focused in the present moment rather than looking backwards. If we made a change, we need to trust that we did it for a good reason; and if the change was forced upon us, we need to let go of the belief we can reverse it. Of course, not looking back is easier said than done, a la Orpheus and Eurydice.
Fourth, journaling can be a helpful way to capture our thoughts and feelings, albeit knowing they’ll already be partially revised. It’s useful to write down the rationale for our decisions to make a change (or for those changes forced upon us, to accept them). We can refer back to these notes if we start to question our decision-making or need a little emotional boost. This record also serves as a snapshot of how we were thinking and feeling as a pre-change iteration of ourselves. We can look back at our notes later, and be reminded of our courage in deciding to make a change. Journals are an excellent nostalgic relic for our later years!
The myth of a true story: look back with caution
“A popular misconception is that we can’t change the past – everyone is constantly changing their own past, recalling it, revising it. What really happened? A meaningless question. But one I keep trying to answer, knowing there is no answer.” – Margaret Laurence, Spear of Innocence, The Diviners
After making a big change, it’s normal to feel a sense of unease or even regret about the decision. At some point, most of us will think the grass was greener beforehand.
Being more aware of our biased decision-making patterns, incorporating our feelings, staying present and recording our thoughts can help us maintain our commitment to change when we’re tested.
Clearly, a lot of cognitive and emotional labour is required to follow through with a Major Life Transition – hence the need to conserve energy and move slowly.
Remember the good old days, before you read this blog? Wasn’t life so much better before you started to question the accuracy of your past narratives?
Write a letter to yourself outlining the reasons you’ve decided to make, or have made, a Big Change in your life. You can also record a voice note, draw, or use whatever modality best allows you to express and clearly capture your feelings and thoughts. Try to be as honest and inclusive as possible.
When you’re talking about an event that happened in the past, try to focus on your feelings. Often they’re more accurate than our filtered thoughts. How were you feeling before the Big Change? How do you feel now?