The Bittersweet Illusion of Nostalgia

Written by on February 18, 2019 in Becoming, Self-Awareness

The Bittersweet Illusion of Nostalgia

Do you remember the rush of your first romantic kiss? How about the thrill of finally moving into a place of your very own (Didn’t matter that it was the size of a closet and you had to survive on ramen noodles!), or maybe the pride you felt scoring that first hard-earned promotion?

Then there is the nostalgia associated with events that tend to define us, college years, marriage, the birth of our children, family holiday traditions.

The spark that brings these memories to mind can be as simple as a song, a scent or hearing from an old friend.

To this day the taste of vanilla ice cream takes me back to weekends visiting my aunt and uncle; days spent with my rowdy cousins racing around the neighborhood on our bikes, parents hovering over the barbecue while we took turns hand cranking a beat-up old ice cream maker out in the garage.

Best ice cream in the known universe, at least that’s the way I remember it.

No matter what else may be going on in our life, these random recollections have the power to make us smile because they provide warmth, familiarity and a sense of certainty that we belong to something good … something larger than ourselves.

But as comforting as nostalgia can be, we also need to be aware that our response to these memories has the potential to trap us in what amounts to a bittersweet illusion.

Nostalgia is delicate but potent. In Greek, nostalgia literally means “the pain from an old wound.” it’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone – a feeling of a place where we ache to go again.

The Illusion of Nostalgia

Our memories, while not entirely fabricated, are selectively chosen, filtered and modified by our own brain to seem better (sometimes far better) than reality.

An example of this might be fond memories associated with family gatherings, choosing to forget the incessant sniping (before, during and after), the inevitable shouting match between Aunt Jane and Uncle Harry, your in-laws screaming kids or your mother’s continued refusal to treat you as an adult.

Think of the fifty-something guy still telling stories of his days as a star quarterback in high school; the middle-aged mom that talks incessantly about how exciting her life was before marriage and three kids; the retired executive that relives over and over again her days as a successful CEO.

To be fair, it can just as easily work the other way round where we remember ourselves as the victim of a horrible experience or relationship, conveniently blotting out our own contribution to the ordeal.

The point is that the same familiarity and sense of certainty that can so easily provide comfort can also cause us to get stuck worshipping idealized memories, or using self-deception as an excuse for our unhappiness or discontent.

Bridging the Memory Gap

Studies have shown nostalgia to be beneficial in several ways. It can increase self-esteem, make you feel valued, help you find meaning in life, and even combat loneliness.

While I’ve uncovered no formal research on this, I have learned firsthand that focusing on certain memories can also boost motivation and self-belief.

Years ago I made a decision to pursue a pretty drastic career change. Everyone told me I was crazy, my husband hated the idea, and while he didn’t stand in my way he later admitted he was sure I would fail.

It took me three years of hard work, but I earned my dream job. Now, whenever I experience self-doubt (as we all do from time to time) the memory of that experience and all of the obstacles I overcame reminds me that I can do pretty much anything I set my mind to!

Learning to bridge the gap between our past and present, using our experiences to grow and thrive instead of longing for what used to be, enables us to savor the sweetness of nostalgia without the bitterness of regret.

Are Your Memories Keeping You Stuck the Past?

It’s clear there are a variety of benefits to nostalgia. The question is how can you tell when you’re focusing on the wrong things or failing to recognize how your memories are keeping you stuck?

Your answers to the following questions will provide a starting point.

  • Do you find yourself clinging to a particular period or relationship from the past?
  • Have you come to believe that your best days are behind you?
  • Are you feeling frustrated and stuck in life, but can’t bring yourself to change?
  • Does thinking about the past actually make you sad?
  • When was the last time you did something for the first time?

The inherent danger of nostalgia comes from an inability (or unwillingness) to move onto new things.

So the key to getting unstuck is to first become aware of the problem and then slowly start challenging yourself to have new experiences.

In this way, you can begin to bridge the gap between your past and present by creating new nostalgia-to-be memories.

If you find that you keep recycling stories from your past, then it’s time to start writing new stories.

Closing Thoughts

Nostalgia is a bittersweet illusion based on recollections that are in large part flawed thanks to our natural tendency to keep the good memories and discard the bad.

When we focus on how much better things were in the past, we risk creating our own self-fulfilling prophecy based on the belief that nothing will ever be as good again.

To avoid this kind of stifling negativity instead of longing for the world the way it used to be, learn to use your past experiences to make the most of the present and prepare for the future.

While not all memories are warm and fuzzy, if we’re willing to listen, they all provide opportunities to learn about how to become the best version of ourselves.

Will you be the passenger or the driver in your life journey?
About Marquita A. Herald

Marquita Herald

Marquita is an author, resilience coach and the chief evangelist at Emotionally Resilient Living. She’s also an unapologetic workaholic who loves red wine, rock n’ roll, road trips (and car dancing!), peanut butter cookies and (especially) a dog named Lucy.

She’s saddened and frustrated by excuses and cruelty and believes authentic compassion is the most powerful force in the world.

To learn more about Marquita and the mission of Emotionally Resilient Living click here.

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