Why "never look back" is damaging

“The past is in the past.”
“Don’t look behind you, the past has nothing more to teach you.”

Memes with similar messaging are everywhere. Encouraging us to pick up and move on. “Let go” of those old stories, just be present and future oriented. Some recite similar things about “changing your story,” “tell a new one now.” And while I think all of those messages are well meaning, they miss an incredibly important detail: We are made of our pasts.

Yes we can choose a new now. Yes we can use mantras and the power of our own thoughts to challenge old identity stories. But any growth of real depth for me has involved processing where I have been, why I was there and how that shaped me.

“The power of positive thinking” could not change my PTSD response to men encroaching on my space. But a willingness to revisit my sexual assault and begin to undo some of the damage that occurred, that did. I literally teamed up with some fighters so I could relive that particular experience and give myself a new outcome. I needed that. I didn’t just “look back,” I went all the way back. It was one of the most healing experiences of my life.

Recently, over pink wine, a friend and I shared stories of our early romantic experiences. It was funny, embarrassing and enlightening. We each found missing parts to our own past, retelling these stories as adults with adult wisdom and experience and not from the perspective of a teenager. We could see things like, “Man, that person was really mean to me, I didn’t deserve that,” “No wonder I struggled so much that year, that was a lot to be hiding,” and more happy things like “In spite of how that ended, we were really sweet to one another. I’m so grateful for that experience.”

To say “never look back” is to believe that we have fully processed and are “done” with all of our experiences to date. That thing that really shaped what you believe about family that happened when you were 5? Yup, your 5 year old self sorted that all out. No need to revisit. Doesn’t that sound a bit ridiculous?

So many of us are terrified to look back. When our bodies ask us to remember something, we don’t trust it. We hide, shove that down somewhere we believe is hidden and if we’re super “enlightened” then we recite a new mantra instead. Especially if there is trauma or great sadness, we just want to “move on.” Why go back to awful things? Let’s just stick our fingers in our ears and hum in the name of positivity.

But the past is where we came from. It’s where our roots were planted. It’s where our identity formed. In all of it’s messy glory, it contains so many of the why’s and how’s of who we are. So rather than just recite a new way, looking back with fresh eyes can help us see all of that in a new way. To change the story of the present, being willing to process it’s origins is a profound place to work. The monsters in my closet, I’ve already encountered. I lived that already. Going back with all the power and evolution in me now, that only offers more peace. More compassion. More understanding of who I was, who I am, and who I always have been.

I don’t pretend to have all the answers for everyone. Each situation, each story, each life deserves to be honored in ways only your own body really knows. There are places I keep digging because the scars from that event continue to pop up in my present. I lovingly go where I’m lead, look again for what I left there, always coming out stronger and healthier that I went in. It’s not always daunting, heavy and dark. But I am resilient. I have already suffered those losses. Going back is not about suffering again, but about healing.

Sometimes that kind of work turns out to be light. A discovery that I wasn’t as crazy as I’d thought at the time. One of the bigger revelations I’ve had recently was one of identity. For years I blamed myself for coerced and forced encounters with men/boys. I (like many) believed myself to be a whore. As an adult I let go of that notion, telling a new story of who I am now. But looking back recently I came to discover that I have always been very specific and firm about my boundaries. That when I wasn’t being victimized, I was clear and strong about what I did and didn’t want. That felt like such a hallelujah. The story I’d told myself before was all a lie. I often find who I am today in beautiful ways reflects who I have always been. But it takes another look to see it.

I’m not suggesting we all go home now, lock ourselves in our rooms and journal about all the bad things that have ever happened. I live in my present life. I also see and acknowledge when my past arises in ways I want to let go of. I notice when my body asks me to remember. And I follow where it leads me. It’s not in an effort to live in the past, it’s the exact opposite. It’s having the courage to revisit where I’ve been so that I don’t drag that around with me everywhere I go. It offers more peace.

“Never look back” is as ridiculous a rule as “always look back.” Life is messier than a one liner said by someone who knows literally nothing about you. Listen to your body, trust what it knows, be willing to evolve and go where you are lead to do so. The answers forward are yours to find, and I trust you will.

I hope that ten years from now when I look back at what I was doing today, I see things I didn’t see before. That’s the beauty of growth and evolution. And I hope I still have the courage and willingness to travel there. It’s a gift to find your treasures, right where you left them.


Erin Brown