We’re all being urged to be more present and live in the moment, but are we losing out on key lessons from the past? We asked the experts…
As a rule of thumb, thinking about the past is framed as something that we should avoid.
Whether it’s dwelling on things we can’t change or not being “in the moment” enough, there’s the general perception that focusing on the past is something negative.
In fact, drawing on your past experiences can be incredibly useful when it comes to gaining both a better understanding of yourself and shaping the way you want to head into the future.
We asked five experts for their take on the subject…
1. The career coach
When it comes to progressing in your career, the focus often remains purely on the future – just take the classic “Where do you see yourself in five years?” interview question.
As career coach Alice Stapleton explains, thinking about positive experiences in your previous work life can be extremely beneficial.
“Reflecting on what you enjoyed in previous roles, and what you didn’t, can be a fantastic way to determine what you want next.
“Think about the strengths and skills you enjoyed using, what working environment you thrived in the most, what type of manager you work well with and what you want the impact of your work to be, based on past experiences.
“We can learn what‘s best to take forward, and what to leave behind, because the past helps us understand what does and doesn’t work for us.
“If something worked well in the past, the obvious advice would be to repeat it. If something you did or said created a positive experience, reflect on what contributed to that, and actively seek to do more of that.
“Ask for feedback on why it worked well at their end, if needs be. This can help you lead with your strengths, as opposed to constantly dwelling on what you need to change, which can be a rather deflating approach at times.”
2. The psychologist
According to psychotherapist Audrey Stephenson, the idea that focusing on the past is damaging is an unfair misconception.
Instead, she suggests that revisiting positive past experiences can help remind us of who we are.
“Many critics of therapy, some who have never tried it, or perhaps have had negative experiences with a therapist who wasn’t the right fit for them, will speak of therapy simply focusing on the past and dredging up trouble and then leaving someone flailing.
“This absolutely isn’t good therapy. Looking at the past does not need to be re-traumatising or paralysing. In fact, when supported by a compassionate witness, it can be utterly transformative.
“Recognising that your ideas about life, relationships and who you are were created at an earlier time, sometimes during childhood, often thoroughly unconsciously, and almost always erroneously, can free you up to create a whole new narrative.
“We needn’t be afraid of the past. It is informative, and we can use it as a tool to help us soothe pain, see truth and acknowledge how far we’ve come.
“Positive past experiences can also be used to remind yourself of who you are.
“Often when challenges and disappointments occur, we create beliefs about who we are in the moment.
“Reminding ourselves about our past connections, triumphs and challenges overcome, can remind us of who we are, when we are drowning in limiting self-beliefs.”
3. The yogi
Yogi and founder of The Human Method, Nahid de Belgeonne recommends using the past to remind yourself of what you’ve already overcome.
“Something that I hear a lot, in this year of uncertainty, is clients telling me that they can’t bear the pain or sadness in their lives or the anxiety of what is to come.
“I remind them that drawing on their experience is a positive thing to do, as you can remind yourself of the times when you thought you would break, but yet you survived and even thrived.
“You can remind yourself of all the strategies that you used to help you endure events. You can remind yourself that everything is transient, and it does pass and that we learn from our experiences.
“When you have no space between you and the problem, it’s really hard to imagine a different reality.
“What I do is to get into a restorative pose and breathe.
“I lie with my torso on a slight incline and my legs bent over a bolster with the soles of my feet together. It’s my go-to pose when I need to understand what it is that I am feeling about something.
“From here, I will allow myself to think the issue through to its worst-case scenario and then breathing in and out through the nose for a slow count of six, I will remind myself how I resolved a similar issue.
“This takes me out of the catastrophising loop in my head and allows me to calm my nervous system – by slowing my breathing down to an optimal pace that balances the nervous system – and to pause, consider and then decide on a course of action, if needed.”
4. The CEO
For Finn Prevett, mental health campaigner and co-founder of mindful gratitude journal The Positive Planner, the past can hold valuable lessons.
“There’s a misconception that dwelling on the past is always negative.
“Of course, it can be if it takes you to a place of self-sabotage, or is very triggering, this is not a positive way to dwell on the past.
“But when used as a way to encourage and inspire our current and future self, and remember our strength and wisdom, this is very powerful.
“Dwelling on past mistakes in a positive way can mean we avoid making those same mistakes again, and adapting a growth mindset as adults allows our past to act as part of our personal growth.
“I have learnt that I can get through anything and I am strong.
“I look back at the micro moments of hope and joy between the darkness and the clouds, and I know that really it is the small things in life that make it worth living.
“My past has allowed me to expand, to learn, to grow. Looking back on seemingly ‘negative’ moments offers me a lot of hope for the future and reminds me of how strong I really am.”
One easy way to harness your positive past experiences when you need a jolt of inspiration is to make use of your senses, like the evocative nature of scent.
For example, the cedarwood and orange blossom in a perfume like My Way might prompt memories of enriching travels and holidays with your friends, giving you a lift when you need it.
5. The mentor
Bhavna Barratt is an entrepreneur and business mentor. For her, past experiences provide fertile soil for growth and improvement.
“I think it’s important to acknowledge our past experiences, good or bad.
“For me, looking back is definitely a good thing. It allows you to feel more accomplished and content, because we often compare our ‘present’ to our ‘past’.
“I remember how proud I felt when I graduated, the feeling of despair with the countless rejection letters and then the incredible feeling of hope when I got offered my first job interview, all these experiences have shaped me into the person I am now.
“I’m able to mentor women who want to start their new businesses because of my own past experiences starting up a business, and knowing how much work goes into it.
“Looking back on where I started and how many mistakes I made, means I can now teach women not to make those mistakes in business. It’s an important lesson, and a really humbling experience.
“As a mentor, I also ask women to think about where they started in their entrepreneurial journey. This allows them to see how far they have come in their business.
“It’s easy to compare yourself with others’ success but often if we look at our own journeys from the time we started to now, we will see that we’ve achieved so much. So look back with pride.
“I think dwelling on your past makes you feel more grounded and in turn makes you feel more content with where you are in life and business.”
Use scent to evoke your past successes and inspire you to shape your own path. My Way, the new scent by Giorgio Armani is a contemporary floral fragrance inspired by our search for meaning and authenticity that celebrates the life-defining connections we make along the way.
My Way is created with a blend of consciously sourced ingredients from around the world, including vanilla sourced from Madagascar through an inclusive program that benefits local communities.