by Laura Lynch, Life Coach, LCSW
In my practice, and life experience I observe that while theories of psychology and brain science may reveal how complex people are, as a sum of their genes, temperament, life experience (including socioeconomic factors) a few things seem to commonly plague people suffering from mental illness or emotional turmoil.
While no doubt, mental illness is often rooted in brain disorders (yes genes play a role and trauma changes the brain and the body) I have noticed that two main ways of being or thinking lead to suffering for many. These are living too much in the past, and difficulty accepting present reality. All too often, these are intertwined, like twin bearers of misery that keep suffering alive.
These factors apply, really, to everyone, not just people suffering from a diagnosed mental illness. Some of these factors are causes, some are symptoms and some are consequences. A lot of times the past is fully entwined in the present, making it much more difficult to come to terms with things.
Living in the Past
1. The inability to let go, or the tendency to live in the past. New trauma only brings it up again. Suffering comes through.
* Anger or wanting revenge
* Ongoing depression and anxiety
* Distorted memory and thinking, misperception about past events, your role and others roles in past
* Delusional thinking (in psychosis a maladaptive coping mechanism, but unintentional response to trauma, helped along by genetic and epigenetic factors).
* Non productive regret and wanting to fix the past
* Energy goes to past, instead of present living or future prospects (Stagnation)
* Little learning done, creativity dampened
* Feeling of being alone with this, not heard, not validated (No one else has had my experience, or could possibly understand my experience).
* Not able to come to terms with past, feeling blocked, no insight or sense of meaning.
* Inability to make progress or reach potential, compounding negative feelings and perhaps confirming faulty perception.
Not Accepting Present Reality
2. The difficulty and discomfort with reality, or inability to accept life as it is. Suffering comes through.
* Procrastination or denial, retreat mode, so problems mount.
* Wishful or magical thinking, unrealistic expectations.
* Over-reaction to situations, more reactive than proactive, impulsivity
* Ongoing feelings of unease or anxiety, or general fear
* Little toleration for stress or change in circumstances
* Constant complaining, blaming, sense of entitlement, overall faulty thinking
* Energy wasted on struggling with negatives (thoughts, other people, etc) instead of acceptance
* Little learning, creativity dampened
* Forest for trees, or trees for forest, inability to understand that life is often inconsistent, has no guarantees, is uncertain, seems unfair, will be painful.
* Feeling that being uncomfortable is terrible, yet not motivated to take action to improve things.
* Inaccurate thinking, not understanding that you may not fully understand or misperceive things, or lack of critical thinking skills.
* Poor decision making leading to unpleasant outcomes
* Constant state of struggle, resistance to yours and others reality (as distorted as it might be)
Together these two states mean that people do not get to fully engage in the present. It is okay and normal to reflect on the past, perhaps grieve or experience memories. It is all too human to want to escape and retreat from petty annoyances, or make your way through setbacks, crisis, and overwhelming tragedy by seeking solace and comfort. (If you are deliberately seeking out pain and suffering then that is another problem).
Living this way all the time is exhausting and energy draining, and may have poor consequences in physical well being. (Addiction is often a part of these twin approaches to life, making things even worse).
A life well lived is firmly planted in the present, with eyes on the future, and the past as a memory properly set aside, to be retrieved and handled with great care. But don’t hold onto the past because you need your hands free to embrace the present and reach out to the future. Most of all, forgiveness and compassion, and perhaps the ability to take things a little lighter and laugh at oneself can provide a little more ease.
How you go about doing this takes thoughtfulness and practice. Slow down and observe. Journaling can help, or keeping a record of your activities. Do something you actually enjoy or do nothing at all for a while.