I often hear from my clients (as well as friends and family in my personal life) that they have trouble accepting where they have ended up in life. This is especially true for people dealing with physical injuries or mental health issues that inhibit their ability to lead their life like they could before. The messages that I most often hear are things along the lines of “things used to be so great, everything was easy, I was happy all the time, my life was perfect!” What I generally see is people creating a timeline with two separate segments: “Then” and “Now”. For some, the transition from “Then” to “Now” is a very specific causal event, like a car accident, a breakup, or the death of a loved one. For these folks, there is a clear turning point in their lives. For others, the distinction is more vague, and it is harder to pinpoint exactly where things seemed to start going wrong. In either situation, I see people comparing their lives now to their lives before things changed.
Now, when people tell me about what their life looks like now, my instinct is to believe them; if they are making the effort to reach out and seek help, my role is to find a way to help, not to challenge what they are saying or question their experience of whatever issue it is they are dealing with. However, when I hear their description of their life before whatever it was that happened, I tend to be a tad bit sceptical, because what I am told often seems a bit too sunny, a bit too happy, a bit too carefree. Now, I realize that doubting what a client or close friend or family member tells me is problematic, so I’ll give a personal example to illustrate my point: When I was completing the first three years of my undergraduate degree, my life was basically perfect. I was working 2-3 part-time jobs, completing more than a full course load, maintaining my status on the dean’s list, developing a thriving social life, taking care to eat right and go to the gym six days per week, and participating in intramural athletics. I always had an abundance of energy, my immune system was impenetrable, my time management skills were impeccable, and I felt like I was on top of the world. During my fourth year, a lot of that changed for a long list of reasons. In other words, my fourth year represented the transition from my “Then” era to my “Now” era. Since then, I’ve often looked back on those earlier years and wished I could get back to that level of control over my life.
Here’s why this is an issue: the story I just told about my early years in education is true, but it is by no means complete. When I think back to that time, those are the things I think about and identify with. I don’t think about how much I hated waking up at 5am to go to the gym, or reading textbooks until I had a headache, or spending hours hunched over a computer completing my work. I don’t think about the social anxiety I felt at parties, or the disappointment I felt when I didn’t do as well as expected on an assignment, or that time I sprained my ankle playing tennis, or even that one night I had a panic attack and debated dropping out for a semester. When I tell people about this time, I focus on the positives and leave out the rest, and for a long time I was completely unaware that I was doing this. And this is what I see happening with my clients and those in my personal life. What this inherently does is create a skewed perception of the past, wherein my sole focus on positives before my fourth year ends up highlighting the issues I experienced during that year and afterwards. And in comparison to that perfect time before, all of the current problems become magnified and seem that much more insurmountable.
Going one step further, I often hear people saying things like “I could handle anything back then, why can’t I just get over this?” Here we have another comparison between “Then” and “Now” where the former is idealized, and the latter demoralized. This becomes especially damaging when people hold themselves to the same standards that they always have, without considering the impact of what they have gone through on their ability to function. Sure, they could run a four-minute mile two years ago, but they weren’t dealing with chronic knee pain at that time. They were the life of the party in their 20’s, but that was when they weren’t struggling under a mountain of anxiety. They used to be able to sleep throughout the night and feel rested, but back then they weren’t dealing with flashbacks and night terrors waking them up every two hours. Maybe there were other things going on that were more manageable, but it is unfair and inaccurate to hold yourself to the same standards you’ve always had without acknowledging the impact of whatever it was that led you to this point.
This brings me to my final, sounds-depressing-on-the-surface point: Your life was never perfect. There were always problems that you had to deal with, whether or not these made it into the current narrative of your life. And this is a good thing. It means you had to develop coping mechanisms, resilience, and problem-solving skills that you may not even realize you have. While things may not be that great right now, comparing them to an idealized version of your life in the past will only make things worse. If you do find yourself thinking about your life before things took a turn, try thinking of some of the challenges you’ve had to overcome, and how this helped you learn and grow as a person. After all, we can’t change the things that have happened to us, but we can change how we think about them and how they play a role in our life story.