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Nostalgia Can Be a Toxic Impulse

“Nostalgia is a toxic impulse.” – John Hodgman

How are we to understand this? Us of the empathetic and nostalgic temperament?

What We Feel About the Past

When you look back on your life, what parts of it do you aggrandize? Let me answer that question about myself.

  1. My fight against the divorce, my attempts to use couples therapy to fix our broken partnership.
  2. My relationship with my kids (mainly the highs, rather than the lows of losing 70% of their time)
  3. The loss of my mother, father, brother, and sister (each affected me deeply)
  4. How I loved well, with enthusiasm, and commitment
  5. Continuous creative output (music, poems, books, memories)

I can find things to worry about. I can find parts of my life that have not gone well. But when we’re trying to regain our balance and energy, we need to recall the things we did well. The ways we stood up to bullying and abuse by neglect. We need to remember the things we did right, in spite of others working against us.

How Nostalgia Hurts

It’s not a long walk to get to the regrets. They come up all the time. In relation to my kids, I am sad about the time we lost together. I think my positive and optimistic character traits would’ve been beneficial for my kids. I lost them in 3rd grade (daughter) and 5th grade (son). Through the most influential years of their lives, my ex-wife ignored my requests to co-parent. She weaponized indifference. Often telling me, “I will have to talk to my husband to consider your request. Probably not until next week.”

My nostalgia tends to be about the good stuff. The full-family times of movie night, wrestling on the bed, swimming at the neighborhood pool, or walking in the greenbelt. And then I feel the loss of that happy time.

Nostalgia is inevitable. But it can also be a catalyst. Don’t like the situation you’re in, change it. Don’t like how you feel or look? Get up and get active. I do still feel nostalgic from time to time, and I repurpose that energy toward action. What action can I take to move my life forward?

Losing the Pain

As we walk away from our painful failures, we can gain distance and perspective. The divorce was a good thing. Finding another partner depended on the ending of our dysfunctional marriage. All the love I’ve experienced since being divorced, and the lessons I’ve learned about what is healthy and good. I am in a better place.

I hope my kids continue to grow and thrive in spite of the bitterness and controlling behaviors of their mom and her husband. That’s part of what I’m here for. To buffer the toxic actions of the “other parents.” Neither of my kids call them “my parents.” They go by first names only. My ex-wife and her husband are on their own journey of rediscovery of life after the kids have left their nest. [To say it’s not going well would be an understatement.]

How their troubles are being pushed down to both of my kids, is still unfathomable. Keep your own shit in your own hula hoop. And don’t flick shit at the parent who is trying to do good. I cannot repair the damage of the lost time. I can’t be an apologist for their dickish mom and her dickish husband. I can only focus on my actions, my words, and how I support my kids.

When I wax nostalgic these days is more about my lost sister who died when I was 22 and she was 32. She was my “emotional” parent. She was my connection to creativity, music, and life. And when she passed, I was tempted to go with her. I was marrying a woman I didn’t know anything about. My sister saw the lie of my first wife. She probably would’ve liked the mother of my children. Until she turned feral.

I have fond memories of my mom. Fewer of my dad. And mainly photos and feels for my sister. My brother and I had a difficult relationship. His alcoholism didn’t endear him to me. He was like my dad but funnier and more depreciating. In my nostalgic moments, if I begin going down the kids/divorce/wife road, I gently nudge my mood in a new direction. A picture of my sister usually brings me back to more supportive memories.

Release the Memories

Don’t get caught up in nostalgia that doesn’t inform or help you. When you find you’re moping in the sadness of nostalgic regret, change the channel. Find a different memory to reanimate. The toxicity comes from wallowing in the hard times and staying there. Regret where you’ve been, yes, but make plans and take action toward the future that you want. Memories are healing and healthy.

When they turn toxic, get some support to redirect yourself. In my life, I have turned to relationships. Those worked out temporarily. I also turned to Al-Anon meetings. The fellowship of the 12-step program, whichever you subscribe to, is unending and unwavering.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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image: my kids and I on an outing a few years into the divorce, creative commons usage okay
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