Back to the Future – How to stop dwelling on the past and change to a positive future.
Recently I have had a few clients who have found it difficult to stop dwelling on the past, which has seriously implicated their mental health and prospects of a happy future.
Let’s take the example of Jamie (not his real name), a middle manager in a large company. He told me he had withdrawn from his family and friends and was not sleeping well, being consumed by negative thoughts which were spiralling out of his control.
I am in the second session with him and he is repeating the same script about his past, about how he is not important, not confident, his difficult childhood and so on. Each time I shift the focus to the here and now, he stays with that for a few minutes and then slips back to the past. He is on autopilot with his negative self-dialogue and self-criticism.
I share this with him when he switches to autopilot again after another attempt to bring him to the present. He says he wants to overcome this but does not know how to. We agree to work on this and call the project ‘Back to the future’. We develop the following strategy together, related tasks and techniques to overcome his negative thinking habit and help him to engage again with his friends and family.
In the first week, his task is to write down his thoughts 3 times during the day for 20 minutes to raise awareness of his automatic negative thinking habit.
The next week, we explore how he can learn to contain these thoughts. Jamie chooses a half hour time slot in the day to think negatively. Now that he is becoming more aware of his habit, each time he becomes aware that he is thinking negatively he says to himself;
‘I will only criticise myself between 17:00 and 17:30 each day’.
In addition, he uses Object Meditation, a technique whereby he would choose a nice object around him (e.g. house plant, picture, ornament, tree, shrub, building) and focus all his attention on this object to break the spiral of the unhelpful thoughts. He finds this a helpful distraction tactic.
The following week we work out short and long-term goals for the future that he will focus on now that there is some space being generated in his mind. Each time he notices he has gone into negative thinking mode he will snap out of it by telling himself to ‘get back to the future’ and concentrate on his next task. We generate an image where there is a fence between his past and future. Jamie is to visualise jumping the fence into his future and keep his sight on his preferred future positive scenario and next task.
We use the scaling process to help him determine a ‘one step at a time’ plan on a scale of zero to ten. At zero, he is consumed with his self-critical script and on a scale of ten at the other end of the continuum, he is reconnected with his family and enjoyable life pursuits.
to use the object meditation which is helping him to feel more positive and focused.
to practice other forms of relaxation from my website to become more aware of his body instead of ‘living in his head’ as he described.
to talk to his wife about his fears and hopes. He said he now feels able to share with her the fact that he is seeking help from a professional.
go to the cinema with his wife for her birthday. He told me that last year he had given her a card and left for work instead of spending time with her, due to the feeling that he was not good enough for her.
by now he is getting more confident in opening up to other people and has gained the confidence to seek support from his manager. He says that his manager is always willing to help but Jamie did not have the courage to ask for it before. Once he shares his anxieties about work, his manager listens to him and discusses changes in his workload that will enable Jamie to leave work more on time.
communicate with his manager on a regular basis for support as issues arise.
text his best friend with whom he has ignored messages and invites to go out. Reconnect by telephone call or contact by email.
go out with a best friend. They are both cricket fanatics. Jamie has stopped playing cricket for the local club for a year since his loss in confidence. He has kept making excuses to his friend when invited to play.
spend time with his daughter. His daughter is home for her summer holidays from university. Last year he had completely ignored her due to his perception of himself as a terrible father. His daughter had given up on him and spent time with her mother and friends instead.
do more of all the above.
The combination of the meditation and visualisation techniques, as well the ‘one step at the time’ approach, helps Jamie not to dwell on his past and negative script but instead to focus his attention and energy in making positive changes towards his future.
He ends the sessions feeling happier and more fulfilled in his work and home life.
The purpose of writing this article is to reassure people who live in the past and are consumed by negative beliefs that it is possible to unlearn this way of being and to get back to a positive future, one step at a time.
Hansa Pankhania is a Fellow of the International Stress Management Association and has worked with over 100 companies nationally to promote the natural wellbeing message.
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