Using the Past Effectively

Last time we talked about New Year’s resolutions and a way to dig deeper into our reasons for them. The process required us to look at our past transgressions. Being able to look at the past to learn from our mistakes is a valuable skill, but it can have its drawbacks as well. Here’s a way to tell if we are using our past experiences effectively.







Our past mistakes can be an influential teacher. The process of learning from what didn’t work the last time and making adjustments is what has allowed humans to advance our civilization in the ways we have.


But, we can also get caught up in our mistakes, and when that happens, we can become distracted from the ultimate goal of moving forward and growing.


Are we using our mistakes as guideposts pointing the way to improve or are our mistakes weighing us down and keeping us from growth?


The difference is in our response to the past event.


Does the recollection of the past event give us a clear picture of the mistake and an action to remedy it? Or does the past circumstance bring up emotions that we end up dwelling on?


Humans are emotional beings, and it’s okay if an experience causes us to feel old emotions. I am not trying to diminish the effects that the past can have on us or disqualify anyone’s feelings. What’s important to remember is that these events cannot harm us in the present as we recall them.


It is crucial for us to understand our feelings and the feelings of others. However, what can end up happening is that we create surroundings that elicit those same emotions we felt in the past.




We like to gravitate towards comfort, and sometimes even negative feelings can give us that support. These situations are predictable. We’ve been there before and to some degree know we can navigate our way through it.


But, the whole thing often ends up being a cycle that leaves us more or less where we started, making growth very hard to achieve.

Like Sisyphus, we can find ourselves pushing the same rock up the same hill.



As we become more aware of how we react to memories, we become better at recognizing when they are useful and when they are not. We begin to develop tools to help us use those past situations effectively. When we are aware that emotions from the past are putting us in a state of fear and keeping us stationary, we can remind ourselves that we are safe at the moment.


We start to understand that when we wallow in self-doubt and shame because we once again cheated on our diet, we can pull ourselves out of the depths of despair and start planning a better next meal.


A lot of times we find ourselves in these types of thought patterns without realizing it. We can identify with emotions and situations, like when we miss a meal in our nutrition plan or miss a workout. The feeling of shame or failing can become part of our identity and how we view ourselves.


How and why these cycles happen can be a little complicated. As humans, we all experience the fear of death and the unknown, and we all learn different ways of dealing with fear in general. We are hardwired with this type of mechanism because fear is what kept our ancestors alive long enough to reproduce back when a rustle in the bushes could mean imminent danger.






In the modern world, we are relatively safer than our ancestors. But, we still have a strong connection to those same fear mechanisms that were used to keep us safe. So, we have outdated software running in our brains, trying to keep us from getting eaten by jungle monsters. And because the software hasn’t caught up to present times, it can interpret signals and information from the modern world in detrimental ways.


Such a system can pull us towards familiarity and consistency because it makes future events seem more predictable.


Even if the familiar is an overall detrimental pattern, we know it.


It can get to the point where these patterns become us. We are always the ones who can never go a few days without binge eating an entire bag of chips. We can never keep a steady relationship. We are always the ones who are late.


Stop and think about your patterns that are similar.


Chances are even thinking about these things can stir some emotions in you. Shame. Fear. Disgust. Whatever those things are, you are feeling something at this moment despite no real threat to your life as you read this.

…Unless you are walking on the street near moving traffic. If that’s the case, please sit down. Or get to where you’re going then pick this up again. Appreciate it, I forgot to have you sign a waiver before you read this….
Anyway, what do we do when we start to feel our past experiences a little too much?


The short answer is that we need to learn to relax on cue. When we recall events and the emotions that we have stored to go with them, our body’s physiological state can change. Our pulse might quicken or we might start releasing stress hormones. Our posture can become distorted, and the tension in our bodies can increase.


Try this: Pay attention to how many breaths you take in one minute. Was it more than 5? 10?

Okay now try again for one minute but focus on extending the exhale portion of the breath as long as you can while remaining relaxed. You can even hum while you exhale. Ideally, we are shooting for 5 or fewer breath cycles in one minute.

By focusing on the exhalation, we tap into our parasympathetic nervous system. The branch of the nervous system deals with resting and digesting as opposed to fight or flight.


So the idea to use the slow exhale for a couple of minutes whenever you find yourself feeling anxious about something that happened in the past. It can even help to imagine the complete opposite scenario while you use your breath to reprogram your response to the memory.


Try this method out when you feel yourself getting nervous about possibly messing up your meal plan or are dwelling on your past mess ups. While you are breathing, focus on the meal that will contribute to your success.


With some practice, we will be able to take the emotional weights that are holding us back and use them to guide us for the rest of our lives.




If you are looking for something a little different and more regular, I started a daily blog for random ideas and musings.



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