Many of us enjoy writing in a diary, reading autobiographies or reflecting nostalgically with others about past times.
Why is remembering our past so important? Are there downsides? And what can we do if living on the past bothers us?
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Memories make us human
Over the decades, researchers have shown that remembering your past is fundamental to being human, and has four important roles.
1. Memories help form our identity
Our personal memories give us a sense of continuity – the same person (or sense of self) moving through time. They provide important details of who we are and who we would like to be.
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2. Memories help us solve problems
Memories offer us potential solutions to current problems and help guide and direct us when solving them.
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3. Memories make us social
Personal memories are essential for social interactions. Being able to recall personal details provides important material when making new friends, forming relationships and maintaining ones we already have.
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4. Memories help us regulate our emotions
Our example provides examples of similar situations that have been done before. This allows us to reflect on how we manage that emotion before and what we can learn from that experience.
Such examples can also help us manage strong negative emotions. For example, when someone is feeling sad they can take time to dwell on a positive memory to improve their mood.
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Memories help us function in our wider society
Dwelling on our personal examples does not only help us as individuals. It also allows us to operate in our socio-cultural context; Society and culture influence the way we remember our past.
For example, in Western individualistic cultures people tend to recall that they are long, specific, detailed and focus on the individual.
In contrast, in East Asian cultures people tend to recall more general examples focusing on social interactions and significant others. Researchers have seen these differences in children and adults.
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Indeed, the way parents discuss past events with their children differs culturally.
Western cultures focus more on the child and the child's thoughts and emotions than East Asian parents. So, there are even cultural differences in the ways we teach our children to live in the past.
People from Western individualistic cultures tend to recollect specific unique examples that reaffirm one's uniqueness, a value emphasized in Western cultures. In contrast, in East Asian cultures, the function associated with relatedness and social connection, emphasized a value in East Asian cultures.
Memories and ill health
As living on the past plays such a crucial role in how we function as humans, it is unsurprising that disruptions in how we remember arise in many psychological disorders.
People with depression, for example, tend to remember more negative personal phrases and less positive personal examples than those without depression. For example, someone with depression may remember failing an exam rather than remembering their academic successes.
People with depression also have great difficulty remembering something from a specific time and place, for example "I really enjoyed going to Sam's party last Thursday". Instead they provide examples of general experiences, for example, "I like going to parties".
We have also found people with depression also tend to structure their life story differently and report more negative life stories. They also tend to remember periods of their lives, such as going to university, as either uniquely positive or negative (rather than a combination of both).
Disturbances in memory are also hallmarks of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is when unwanted, distressing personal memories of the trauma spontaneously pop into the mind.
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People with anxiety disorders also tend to biases when remembering their personal past. For example, all of us, unfortunately, experience social blunders from time to time, such as tripping on a bus or spilling a drink at a party. However, people with social anxiety are more likely to be consumed with feelings of embarrassment and shame when remembering these experiences.
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Finally, an excessive, repetitive dwelling on your past, without generating solutions, can be unhelpful. It can result in emotional distress and in extreme instances, emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
I want to live on the past. What can I do?
If living on the past bothers you, these practical tips can help.
Set aside a certain amount of time for your day. You could write in a diary or write down your worries. Writing about important personal experiences in an emotional way for as little as 15 minutes a day can improve your mental and physical health.
Practice remembering specific positive examples from your past. This can allow you to engage differently with your example and gain a new perspective on your example.
Learn and practice mindfulness strategies. Instead of dwelling on painful memories, focusing on the present moment (such as attending to your breath, focusing on what you currently see, smell or hear) can help break a negative cycle.
When living on past examples Try being proactive and generate ideas to solve problems rather than just being passive.
See your GP or health practitioner if not distressed about living on your past.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.