The Payoff for Holding onto the Past
Why do some people dwell on the long-gone?
Posted Sep 12, 2012
Dear Dr. Alasko: Seven years ago my brother was divorced by his childhood sweetheart after being married for only two years. Since then he's consumed with a fantasy that she'll come back to him. We seldom invite him to our home anymore because all he does is sulk. We think he needs help but he won't see a counselor. Oddly, we have other family members who obsessively dwell on the past—and wonder if there could be a genetic component to these behaviors.
Dear Reader: There might be genetic predisposition to harboring a pessimistic and backward-looking attitude about life. For instance, we know that many infants demonstrate, from birth onward, tendencies to be shy and anxious or outgoing and inquisitive. While shy children can become more outgoing as they mature, their basic personalities remain intact.
The same is true about optimistic versus pessimistic personalities. Some people tend to see flowers growing in the gutter and look forward to another day, while others see the mud and don't imagine tomorrow as being better.
So it seems logical that certain people have an innate tendency to hold onto past events and feel ongoing remorse about what could have happened.
At the same time, there's a powerful psychological payoff for holding onto the past, no matter what form it takes: it allows people to avoid personal responsibility. When you can blame external circumstances for your problems, you can then dump all your resentment and anger on others. The operating belief here is: "You are the cause of my unhappiness and failure." Or the cause is the "system," or "those people." It's a deep-seated version of imagined victimhood and has been part of society for millennia. It portrays negotiation and compromise as betrayal and co-existence as self-annihilation. It's a harsh, punitive philosophy.
This belief system also provides another powerful payoff: everything is easier, since complex thinking and personal effort are not required. After all, why bother? Your happiness and success are not under your control, so why even try?
In your brother's case, he believes that his lack of success in his relationship is not his responsibility; it’s all a product of his ex-wife’s wilfuillness. So why try to do any of the things that other people do to succeed?
I'm reminded of a young man who complained repeatedly about his loneliness. His appearance reminded me of someone who slept in the forest and ate wild animals. The word "attractive" was utterly unknown to him. Nor did he WANT to know about how attraction works in human society because to do so would take effort. And that effort would require self-discipline, will-power and restraint, none of which interested him.
The word "interested" is key. If someone's not interested in learning and growth, they won't learn or grow.
Ultimately, it's sad that your brother is so trapped in his delusion and remorse. But don't give up hope. Some day he might be struck by a vision that suddenly illuminates his inner darkness and he'll see a new and optimistic path. He might spontaneously burst into brightness. But whatever illumination he receives will still require personal effort and self-discipline. There's no escape from that basic fact about happiness.