Ah, the good old days. If only I could go back and relive those moments. Nothing will ever be as good as that time with my friends as a teenager, the holidays with my family, or playing in the backyard as a child, chasing my dog. Or many other moments in the past that I wish I could revisit. I wish I could rewind the movie of my life and be there again, as if for the first time, but this time to “know then what I know now”. How I wouldn’t take it for granted this time. How I’d be aware with every passing moment how special each moment actually is and was, and truly cherish them in the moment this time around.
Nostalgia has a tendency to be like a natural sedative. It has a way of taking past events and not only shining the spotlight on the most positive points of those moments, but it also glosses each memory with a heavy coat of euphoria and idealization (if only they sold that combination in a can to use in the present). In nostalgic moments, each memory becomes magnified, not only in terms of depth of meaning, but also of emotional experience. There is generally a longing to go back to these past experiences with a desire to hold each moment close and not let it go.
While nostalgia can provide a warm memory in occasional moments, repeated patterns of nostalgia is actually akin to a difficulty mourning unprocessed losses. In our lives, we don’t just lose people, but we lose time, experiences, portions of our lives, childhood, adolescence, college years, parenthood, and all of the things that go with these periods of our lives. These are often times of innocence and less responsibility — where our lives and future were still ahead of us and there was more of a sense of freedom. For some it can also be later moments such as parenting small children, for example. Generally, nostalgia reflects periods of life that now feel closed in a bubble somewhere in the past. Moments that you can’t have back or fully repeat in the present.
While some of these losses may be processed along the way in life, many are not. We hold tightly to these experiences, often going back to them to revisit them internally. And while there’s something nice about having this internal thumb drive of our life experiences, it can also wreak emotional havoc if we become too caught up in these moments.
Many of the people I see in my practice struggle with the grip of nostalgia and its impact. For some people, nostalgia and unprocessed losses are a significant factor in feeding depression. There is a constant feeling that the best parts of their lives are already gone, trapped somewhere in the memory of the past. For many people in this place, they end up spending a lot of emotional energy aiming to get these moments back, in one way or another. This can be acted out through things like “grass is greener syndrome”, constantly looking for the shinier green grass somewhere else in life. The idea being that the best moments are never in the present, but something to chase after that’s always just out of their grasp.
What makes nostalgia so tricky is embedded the euphoric and idealized layer of gloss that paints the memories. This makes it harder to let go of the yearning and the grief. And, if you can’t have the moment back, well, the feeling is that at least you have the memory and the emotion to remain connected to these important moments in your life. However, the euphoria provides a constant reinforcement of the feeling of loss. Not being able to process these moments doesn’t allow the gloss to thin, which generally tends to increase the feeling of loss and depression, as well as the (likely unconscious) feeling that the present isn’t good enough without that hybridized glossy coat. Eventually, it may turn into feeling like you can never reach the emotional standards and expectations that are set internally, and everything starts to feel less than fulfilling.
This can be paralyzing for people and leave people eventually feeling hopeless. The nostalgic moments highlight what has meant the most to us in our lives, and informs us about who we want to be and what we want to become. Wiping off the glossy coat from these moments threatens to wipe away the strength of the meaning and relevance of these past moments for people. The deeper worry generally becomes that you’ll be left without a sense of self and meaning if you come through the other end of the losses. Similar to losing a loved one where you may want to move out of the grief, but you never want to forget the strength of the love, which is in itself painful. Wallowing takes over to protect the greater meaning.
This is the cycle that keeps people caught in grass is greener syndrome, or intensifying depression and lack of satisfaction in the present. Working through the grip of nostalgia can help open the door to moving forward out of the stuck and unfulfilled present and into a more hopeful future — where the future doesn’t have to be the past, and the rest of your life can actually still be ahead of you.