11 Ways Looking Back Helps you Move Forward

There are lots of idioms about how looking back upon your life has merit. “Hindsight is 20/20.” and “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The last one attributed to George Santayana has been smudged into so many different phrases that no one can even quote the original. The most popular version is something like, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” Doomed, bah humbug! There is stuff to learn from our experiences, and from them there are reasons to hope. I want to give you a list of reasons why your own history can help you move forward into a glorious future story.

  1. Looking back gives you perspective. When you can say, “I have seen change in me over the years,” or “I’ve overcome that obstacle before,” you can carry with you the hope that you can get through something difficult again. What ways have you seen change in your life

  2. You have done difficult things before. A friend told me because she has completed a marathon she has confidence that she can succeed at something else big or scary. Make a list of difficult circumstances have you beaten.

  3. Your past can give you motivation to NOT become what you saw or experienced growing up. Please be careful to not let bitterness be the motivation because it could poison the present. Reframe in a positive statement why you want to be a better person than what was modeled to you.

  4.  Consider all of your life experiences as the foundation your character has been built upon. You can review the challenges, successes, failures, difficult relationships, protection from catastrophe, provision of your need for shelter and food, investments you have made into people and see how it has shaped you. You can be bitter that it hasn’t been everything you needed it to be, or you can be grateful. Being thankful about all of the experiences, good and bad, helps develop a positive attitude about the future. What past difficulty can you work on trying to be thankful for?

  5. Our family of origin can have such an influence on how we act and react in the present. All those events and interactions are source material for unhealthy relational patterns. It’s good to revisit those influences, particularly with a counselor, to take steps to become unstuck and develop new healthier relational patterns. Future relationships will be blessed because you have worked on this area of life. Identify a few current relational patterns you recognize from your family of origin and talk to a friend or counselor about them.

  6. Revisit your heritage. There are strengths your culture gives you in handling stresses of today. Likewise, there can be deficiencies. Take time to evaluate both. Your heritage can be a source of immense pride, which helps give strength to face the future. What strength does your heritage give you that help you move forward with hope?

  7. Lean on your lifelong friends. They are anchor points in your history who give us confidence to face future situations. They have watched us over years and can see how we have grown, changed, or taken steps backwards. Hopefully you have the kind of relationship where you can ask for feedback and get an honest answer. If you have a hard time receiving feedback from others you may have some work to do figuring out why. The only way you get better at relationships is by talking out your problems with relationship with safe people who bring wisdom and perspective. Who is on the short list of lifelong friends you can give permission to speak wisdom into your life?

  8. Looking back at emotionally charged events from the past with some emotional distance can help you think rationally and reasonably about the event and allow for evaluating failure and success without being overwhelmed. Granted, it is hard to do this, particularly if there have been deeply traumatic events. EMDR is a therapy tool many counselors and psychiatrists are trained in that can help diminish the pain of past traumatic events. If you are locked up because of traumatic events (like PTSD), then you might consider EMDR. Ask a psychological expert. Freedom from all the feelings stemming from traumatic events can give you a huge boost of hope for the future. Are there some traumatic events in your past that you need to talk through? What steps can you take for your own freedom?

  9. Become a question asker. The “When did I feel that way before?” question can help you realize what your trigger points are in situations that currently arise. The “Why is this happening again?” question can help you identify historic patterns of dysfunction. The “Why are they reacting this way?” question invites me to evaluate whether I am contributing to unhealthy communication styles. Asking questions with curiosity and empathy usually has a much better response than accusing and lashing out. Asking questions invites interaction with an end result of understanding. Willingness to ask questions of yourself shows willingness to change, and willingness to change builds courage to change. Courage to change gives hope that your future can be different. Begin to ask questions of others and yourself with curiosity and empathy.

  10. Remember the journey. Every once in a while creeping anxiety starts filling my heart with dread. I think, “Oh no, it’s coming back upon me.” But I have to remember “I’m not the same person that went through that event in the past.” I don’t have to have the same reaction or succumb to it the way I did back then. I have grown and matured (in some ways). I have more emotional and relational tools to deal with anxiety now then 10 years ago. We are people in process, and any one moment doesn’t paint the whole picture. Reflecting on your journey and how far you have come can give you hope when a moment of doubt creeps in. Write down a few victory moments so you can remind yourself how far you have come.

  11. Christmas is a season for remembering. The central focus of Christmas is the birth of Christ. Everything in the season makes me think back to earlier years, especially now that I have kids. I experience melancholy mixed with nostalgia mixed with wonder mixed with excitement. An emotional potpourri. It’s good to remember and feel all those things. A co-worker Jenn Phipps wrote in her blog, “We feel our brokenness. Christmas brings the reminder we are being made whole again. We know the need of our redemption.” Advent season is not just about the arrival of the baby Christ, but also a reminder that He is Lord and our Prince of Peace. We can feel that peace when we reflect on the true meaning of Christmas. Take a moment to reflect on Christmas as the arrival of the Prince of Peace. How might that change your experience of the holiday?

Our past can be an anchor either heavy or light depending on how you look at it. We can get stuck in the past if you think all your best days are behind you (“Ah, the glory days…”). Or if we have obsessed about how bad life has been and can’t let go, it will be hard to see hope for the future. If you can get to a point of being thankful for all the events of the past, forgiving those who have hurt us, and working on softening our own rough edges I think we can see the past as something that helps us live wisely in the present and gives us hope for the future. We can have a glorious story.

I sometimes acutely feel a lack of hope. When I do I try to remember a sentence spoken in the Bible, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him…” (Romans 8:28)  This additional outside-of-my-own-head wisdom reminds me that behind the scenes I have Someone who loves me and orchestrates events for my good, even if “my good” means I have to go through difficulty. He reminds me that even though my history is littered with pain and failure, I am not doomed to repeat the mistakes. There is freedom and there is hope that my future will be different because I can learn from my past. I hope you can grasp on to that hope as well.

Photo was taken at Picuris Pueblo in New Mexico. I shot into the rearview mirror to capture the church almost as an afterthought. But I love how the church’s ladder leads me to thoughts of hope that I can actually climb out of my ruts and experience a glorious God who calls me to a higher place.


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