By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 94 and this week I’m talking about the past.
In this episode I’ll cover what the past is, why viewing the past both objectively and thoughtfully matters for your mental health, and how to both embrace the past and, more importantly, make your peace with it. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 32 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m talking about how to look after your mental health during lockdown (hello to all my listeners/viewers/readers in countries facing lockdowns, like here in Australia! We will get through this…).
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 29 August, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 94, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week I’m talking about the past and I’ll be discussing what the past is, why the way you view the past matters for your mental health, and how to make your peace with the past.
Before I begin, watch the latest episode of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube where I’m sharing practical advice on how to look after your mental health during lockdown. For most of us here in Australia and in New Zealand, like quite a few other countries around the world we’re in an extended lockdown due to the spread of the Delta variant, and that can be quite challenging on your mental health, which is why I made this video. Watch it now on YouTube or IGTV and I release new episodes every Wednesday; you’ll also find the video at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au and the link is in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on.
So, with that covered, on with this week’s episode about the past…
I mentioned a few months ago that I had decided to start therapy again as a means of dealing with my emotional eating (and it’s been going quite well — I’ve been eating a healthy diet since May and feeling much better in general), and the thing with therapy is that it often involves a lot of digging around in the dusty recesses of your mind in order to understand your past and identify why certain patterns of behaviour come up time and time again so that you can then address them, especially if there are things that remain unresolved or unaddressed. In my case, quite a bit of stuff has been surfacing — it’s been feeling a bit like one of those tiny cars that have multiple clowns spilling out of it, and at the moment it feels like we’re up to about 47 of the little buggers and yet they still seem to keep on coming.
Because the thing about the past is that even though it no longer exists, and I’ll talk about that shortly, it still lives within us and when have trauma or issues that we have not resolved (or that we just try to push aside), they never actually go anywhere; we carry them with us and, consciously or subconsciously, they continue to affect us every day in ways that we may not even realise.
One of my favourite song lyrics of all time comes from Madonna’s song Nothing Really Matters (and I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted this at some point in one of my earlier episodes). The quote is: “Nothing takes the past away, like the future.” Which is yet another one of those somewhat-mind-blowing statements that can take us down a rabbit hole of quantum mechanics and the meaning of time, so for now let’s just keep things simple and start with some definitions and talk about…
What is the past?
And I love starting off with a dictionary definition because, very often, it’s just so literal that it makes me laugh out loud. In the case of ‘the past’ it’s defined as both “the history of a person or place” and “the time before the moment of speaking or writing” — which is about as literal as you can get and, also, about as vague as you can get! There are quite a few of these concepts that we’re just expected to know and understand even though they can be a bit vague and generalised… I mean, I know the past is history but what exactly is it? Don’t bother looking it up — because ‘history’ is defined as ‘the past’. Which then creates a definition loop that just might make your head explode.
So instead of trying to define ‘the past’ using the dictionary, instead maybe we should choose to look to philosophy because the notion of time — the past, the present and the future — has been the subject of thought and debate since the beginning of time itself. There are two main schools of thought about the idea of time: that it’s either fundamental to the structure of the universe, or that it’s actually more of a function of how we human beings structure and process events; in other words, that time may exist only because we exist to think about it. I have no idea what kind of existential hell that is, but what I do know for sure is that you cannot turn back time — unless, of course, you are Cher, since we all know that Cher invented time in 1989 (once again, pretty sure I’ve made that joke before but I am not going back over 90+ transcripts to check so… just consider this a message about the positive aspects of recycling!).
I discuss the past, the present and the future quite often here on the podcast and I do so because so much of our worry, fear and uncertainty comes from concerns about the future as well as regrets from the past combined with situations, relationships and events that we might not have fully made our peace with. Now, this is an exclusive bit of news here which is to say that I’ll actually be looking at the topic of the future for Episode 100, which is due to come out on the 10th of October 2021 and also coincides with World Mental Health Day (plus it’s the week of the two-year anniversary for this show), so keep an eye out for that. So, with that in mind, it felt right that I should talk about the past in more detail here today so that you had a few weeks to reflect on it before we then talk about the future in Episode 100!
Which feels like a nice segue into the next part of today’s episode…
Why does the way you view the past matter for your mental health?
And it matters because the past no longer physically exists and, also, it cannot be changed, because what is done is done… yet the past still lives on in our memories (as well as those embarrassing photos you uploaded to social media before you knew any better). The past matters, because it brought us to the point that we’re at today, and at the same time it also doesn’t matter, because in spite of what did or didn’t happen in your past, what’s done is done and you can choose to take any action here in the present to be whatever and whoever you like…which means the past does not have to define you, even though it is what created the you that is currently listening to this. Confused yet? Well, wait a minute… there’s more!
A lot of our pain and suffering can be linked to things that happened to us in our past — things like hurt and rejection from relationships, friendships and loved ones, loss, disappointment, etc. etc. — and when we carry that stuff around, it weighs us down. If we’re unable to change the painful events of our past, then we’re left with just two options: either we accept them and make our peace with whatever happened or didn’t happen, or we let it haunt us for years to come. Processing the past, accepting it and letting it go is really the only healthy option available, because everything else just serves to torment you with regrets or guilt or whatever over things that cannot ever be changed, no matter how much you think about it.
Let me share a quote from Healthline that explains the effect that kind of pain can have on your wellbeing. The quote is:
“Experts have found that when emotional pain prevents you from healing from a situation, it’s a sign that we aren’t moving forward in a growth-oriented way. One of the best ways to heal from hurts is to learn lessons from the situation and use those to focus on growth and forward momentum. If we get stuck in thinking about what “should have been,” we can become immobilized in painful feelings and memories.”Source: Healthline (https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-let-go#Tips-for-letting-go)
And you’ll find the link for that article in the transcript, which is available for free at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/episodes.
If you choose to view the past more as a learning opportunity and you approach it with acceptance, that helps you to focus more on finding ways to move forward. How do you do that? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…
How to embrace the past and make your peace with it
So let’s begin with a pretty big point and it is…
Actively work on making your peace with the past — the only way to do this stuff is to actually do the work; that could mean journalling and doing self-development work on your own (like all the bits of advice I’m giving today) or it could mean working with a professional, like a therapist or counsellor (depending on your needs and your situation). Whatever you choose to do, do something… because carrying that stuff from the past around with you every day is just an unnecessary burden that is detracting from your happiness and wellbeing today. How do you begin to do that? Well, that’s my next point which is…
Confront it — whatever may (or may not) have happened in your past, pretending it’s not a thing isn’t a healthy choice because that usually just ends up creating more issues for yourself later. I had a whole bunch of stuff I wasn’t dealing with and was just trying to convince myself I was OK with, and that led me to relapse into emotional eating (which turned me into a supersize version of myself, and not in a good way). Confront your feelings about the stuff from your past that you don’t feel great about — it’s not going to change what happened, but confronting it is the first step in learning how to make your peace with it. If you made a mistake or hurt someone in the past, face it. If you made life choices that were not the healthiest, face it. If you did or said things that you’re not proud of, face it. That doesn’t mean beating yourself up over whatever it is (emotionally or physically), but instead it means making the choice to see it objectively as something that has happened and now requires your acceptance (which I’ll explore in more detail in a minute). First, though, let’s talk through my next piece of advice which is…
Process it — and this follows on from confronting it because once you’ve gone, “Oh, there’s some stuff in my past that I don’t feel great about” then the next step is to process it in a rational and objective way to understand it while also allowing yourself to feel what you need to feel. Now this is the bit where I’m going to say that the more serious type of stuff from your past — like serious trauma — really should be something that you work through with a professional. I know not everyone feels great about doing that, and sometimes it’s also about financial considerations, but a DIY approach to your mental health probably isn’t going to cut it when it comes to really serious, hardcore trauma. Having said that, there are (of course) plenty of things you can do regardless of your situation (I mean, it’s your mental health so it begins and ends with you!), but I just want you to be mindful that the tough stuff really should involve a professional because trying to process it on your own may make your situation worse. In general, though, processing it can be done in lots of ways (like reflection and journalling, again) and regardless of what you choose, the focus here is to make your peace with it so you can bring yourself closer to a place of acceptance since whatever has happened has happened (and so cannot be changed). Which leads to my next point…
Practice acceptance — and this was the subject of Episode 36 of the podcast, so you’ll find a lot more detail in that episode, however the main point here is that the opposite of acceptance is resistance (which I covered in Episode 65) and the thing about resisting is that it usually leads to the same things happening over and over again until you finally deal with whatever it is and accept things as they are instead of how you wish they were (at least that’s the case with mental health; with civil rights and humanitarianism, I say never stop fighting!). The thing is that things are what they are and the past is what it is; no amount of fighting that fact will change it or give you any control over it. Which leads me nicely into my next point…
Remind yourself of what you can control and what you cannot — and this is another one of those things that I say practically every episode so I’m sure my regular listeners will be able to recite this almost word for word: all you have any direct control over is yourself; in other words, what you choose to say and do along with what you choose to do with your feelings. The thing is that we often try to control things that we have no hope of ever controlling — the past, other people, cats — and when we do that it can cause us unnecessary pain and suffering. Focus on what is within your direct control, and practice acceptance of everything else; that doesn’t mean that you give up or let people walk all over you (and I refer you to Episode 45 which was all about assertiveness) but it means that you know the difference between trying to control things versus understanding that you can influence things but not control them. For more on the subject of control, listen to Episode 48 of the podcast. My next point is…
Talk about it — I used to have a tagline on this podcast that went “the more we talk about it, the easier it gets” and even though I don’t use it that often anymore, the message remains completely valid. If you’re feeling some type of way about stuff from the past, talk about it with someone you trust. When you keep things bottled up it can cause a wide range of issues.
Next, if you did something you feel bad about, take ownership — look, at this point I’m not going to say ‘if you did something wrong’ because right and wrong are such subjective terms, but the fact remains that sometimes we make a mess of things for ourselves or for other people (or both) and if that has happened, take ownership and be accountable. I talked about accountability back in Episode 16 and I did so because nobody is perfect, and we all make mistakes, but I believe that the measure of a decent human being is our willingness to be accountable when we mess up so that we can learn from it and, ultimately, so we can grow. Which leads to my next point…
Work through and let go of regrets — and again this is a topic I’ve covered before in its own episode, back in Episode 22, and it’s one of those ones that might seem really obvious until you realise you’ve been carrying around so much excess baggage that the airlines want to charge you for it. Regrets don’t do anything other than keeping you stuck in the past and, worse yet, feeling stuck in guilt and shame. What has happened in the past is done and no amount of regret is ever going to change the circumstances, so all you can do is suck it up and learn from it. I think regret comes from a kind place, because it means we care and we feel bad about whatever did or didn’t happen, but it doesn’t actually serve a practical and healthy purpose because it’s not constructive. You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it so that you don’t repeat it. So, moving on to my next point…
Accept you may never get the answers you want — if you’ve got stuff in your mind from the past that you still want answers to or that you’re hoping for closure on, I hate to break it to you but there is a very (very!) high chance that you may never get the specific answers you want. There are a few reasons why but the main one is that we build up the idea of closure in our minds in terms of finding out why something did or didn’t happen, but that’s rarely the way it turns out because even if we do get some answers they are rarely enough to satisfy what we think we need. The only true closure is to make your peace with whatever happened and also with the fact that you may never actually know why (especially if another person is involved). Like Madonna said, life is a mystery and everyone must stand alone.
Be objective about the past — because one of the things that can happen to many of us is that the idea of the past becomes almost glorified, and so we might compare the present to times gone by in an idealised type of way. Let’s be real: the past, just like the present, is not perfect and indeed it never was. There were good times, there were average times, and there were bad times… and they all existed at the same time. A lot of people romanticise the past or find themselves trying to recapture old glories, but the past can never be recreated and besides, the version of the past that lives in your head is incomplete because it’s only a highlights reel of the things that really stood out for you (the good and the bad). I can guarantee you most, if not all, of us don’t remember the boring and mundane details of the past and if we did remember it exactly as it was (rather than how we think it was) then we’d see things very differently. We tend to do this a lot in relationships, especially after breakups, where we remember mainly the good times and conveniently forget about most or all of the crap that led to the breakup in the first place. So instead of just thinking the past was perfect and rosy all the time, consider the whole picture and be objective. I mean, I look back fondly on the 90’s now but it wasn’t a great time and at least here in Australia our economy was in the toilet for most of it… but that’s a conversation for a different type of show, so hopefully you see my point about how we think about the past, because I guarantee you it was not as perfect as you might think (it also wasn’t as bad as you may think, just to present the other side of the argument there). So, moving on, my next point is…
Reframe negatives with positives — and this is the whole positive thinking thing that I talked about in Episode 90, and the piece here is not to pretend that there hasn’t been negative stuff but instead to reframe it. For example, rather than focusing on the fact that you spent ages working at a job that made you miserable so you had to leave, instead reframe that to focus on the fact that the job helped you to see what you don’t want; a realisation you might not have come to otherwise. There is a positive in almost every negative… sometimes you just have to work extra-hard to find it! So, my next point is…
Let it go — that may involve letting go in your mind or doing something more physical, like writing everything down and then either tearing it up and throwing it away or, instead, burning it (if you do that, please be safe and do it in an appropriate place — you might scare people if you sit down in the middle of the supermarket and start burning paper). I talked about letting go in Episode 32, so check that out for more. Whatever works for you, choose to consciously let go so that you can move forward one day at a time; which leads me to my next point…
Focus on today — all we have for certain is this moment, so choose to make the most of it! I talked about this at length in Episode 83, so listen to that for more specifics on that subject, however the main piece here is that when you focus all of your energy and attention on the past or the future, what you end up doing is robbing yourself of your joy in the present moment. I also talked about joy last week in Episode 93, so check that out as well. And that leads me to my final point before I wrap up today…
Get support — now I know I said it before but an episode is not complete unless I remind you to seek out support for things that you might be having a tough time dealing with or overcoming. You are not alone and you do not have to go through challenging times alone — nor should you — so please talk to a professional if you need help dealing with challenges from your past.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to the past and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: The only place that the past actually exists anymore is in our memory, and while that’s lovely for reminiscing it doesn’t really do you any good here in the present. The thing is that you are not your past; you are what you do with your past. You can choose to let it be a burden that holds you back and keeps you in regret, or you can choose to let it be a learning opportunity to help you be the very best version of yourself possible.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“The past exists only in memory, consequences, effects. It has power over me only as I give it my power. I can let go, release it, move freely; I am not my past.”Unknown
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about worry. Worry very often goes hand-in-hand with challenges like overthinking and anxiety, and worry about the present or the future (or both) takes you away from your ability to be fully present, especially when it involves worrying about things that are out of your direct control. So next week I’ll be talking about what worry is, why dealing with worry thoughtfully matters, and how to manage worry for the sake of your mental health.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 5th of September. And on Wednesday, catch the latest episode Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube or IGTV, or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my free mailing list for podcast transcripts and my weekly newsletter. You’ll also find the link in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re listening to me on.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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