Are You Living in the Past? Here are Seven Key Warning Signs

What 'time zone' do you live in? If you're stuck in the past, you'll find yourself lodged in sadness and resentment. However, you don't always realize it. These seven keys can help you become aware of it.
Are You Living in the Past? Here are Seven Key Warning Signs
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 28 July, 2022

If you’re living in the past, you’re not only living in a hazy present, but you’re also missing current opportunities. That’s because many of your emotional injuries of yesterday trap you in a prison of never-ending dormant pain. Furthermore, you struggle to stay in the here and now as your mind keeps escaping back into your past world.

Losses, disappointments, frustrated dreams, unforgotten loves, and even childhoods cut short by trauma can mean you’re literally living in your past. This is a situation that has a negative effect on your psychological health. As a matter of fact, Buddhist philosophy claimed a millennia ago that well-being is only found by living fully in the present moment.

However, curious as it may sound, you may well not be aware of how attached you are to your past.

Sometimes, every decision you make or don’t make, every fear that grips you, and every sensation you experience is the result of this particular reality. Becoming aware of this fact is the first step toward generating changes. In fact, to free yourself from those old ties that take away your potential and well-being.

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream about the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”


Woman looking into a broken mirror representing when you are living in the past

How do you know if you’re living in the past?

Living in the past doesn’t always mean that you’re continually enveloped by nostalgia. As a matter of fact, the University of California conducted a study claiming that, as a rule, nostalgia is a positive emotion.

Indeed, psychology agrees that nostalgia allows you to make sense of who you are and, in turn, builds your identity over time. Therefore, feeling nostalgic isn’t the same as living in the past, which is the condition that makes you suffer.

Living in the past means you position yourself in what’s gone. You embrace its absence, keep prodding your open wounds, and immerse yourself in what no longer makes any sense. However, you’re not always aware of it. In fact, you can live, work and relate to others without understanding that you’re still paying the high price of something that happened yesterday. This is making you miserable.

Here are seven keys to let you know if you’re living in the past.

1. You blame yourself for almost everything

Guilt is a permanent feeling of dissatisfaction that eats away and invalidates you. In general, if you haven’t overcome your past, you carry the constant weight of guilt and negative self-perception. That feeling is like an all-consuming black hole.

You don’t process anything you do in a positive way. Furthermore, your negative and disabling internal dialogue never shuts up.

2. You compare the present with your past (retrospective filter)

When you meet someone new, you tell yourself that you wish you’d found them in your past. If you’ve had a particularly nice moment in your day, you immediately think back to the past. In fact, your mind swings from the past to the present like a pendulum, constantly comparing yesterday with today, and vice versa. All of this subjects you to a state of great psychological exhaustion.

3. You’re afraid of change

One inescapable sign that you’re living in the past is resistance to change. Your psycho-emotional attachment to yesterday is so pathological that you experience any variation of your reality as a threat. It’s inevitable that things change from one day to the next. Nevertheless, you see this as a loss, a breach of your security.

Change forces you to travel through unknown terrain. However, if you’ve experienced traumatic events in the past you may not feel prepared for it. That’s because you lack the tools to deal with it, and feel both fearful and insecure. 

4. You have low self-esteem

When you cling to your past, it’s because something happened there that you haven’t yet overcome. That wound, that dormant problem, runs aground on your low self-esteem and boycotts your image. You feel bad about yourself, you feel fragile, fallible, and sometimes even ashamed.

These are extremely complex psychological realities that completely diminish your ability to be happy in the present.

5. Negative emotions like sadness, anger, and loneliness predominate

You’re living in the past when you feel sad on a daily basis for the yesterday that you can’t get out of your mind. Furthermore, when your moods are always so close to the surface, you often get angry and experience outbursts of anger.

In addition, you feel that no one understands you, or knows what you’re going through. This generates a feeling of loneliness at the same time.

6. You struggle to build satisfying and meaningful relationships

If you’re living in the past, you put all your energy there and ignore the here and now, which is what really matters.

You can’t be a good partner or a good friend if you’re trapped by a yesterday that prevents you from loving those around you today. This leads you to relationships that end too soon, constant reproaches, and inevitable loneliness.

couple thinking about when you are living in the past

7. You’re not happy

Bitterness, resentment, feeling of failure… Living in the past means living in an open wound, in a psychological state where only resistance, adverse emotions, and loneliness live.

Happiness doesn’t fit through the door of those who only look back. Nothing new arises in the inflexible mind that doesn’t pay attention to what happens in the here and now or doesn’t look to the future with hope.

Bear in mind that nothing grows in a time that belongs to yesterday. Because yesterday no longer exists. It’s gone forever. Therefore, stop paying attention to things that no longer have any meaning or presence in your life.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Newman, David & Sachs, Matthew & Stone, Arthur & Schwarz, Norbert. (2020). Nostalgia and Well-Being in Daily Life: An Ecological Validity Perspective. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 118. 325–347. 10.1037/pspp0000236.
  • Park G, Schwartz HA, Sap M, Kern ML, Weingarten E, Eichstaedt JC, Berger J, Stillwell DJ, Kosinski M, Ungar LH, Seligman ME. Living in the Past, Present, and Future: Measuring Temporal Orientation With Language. J Pers. 2017 Apr;85(2):270-280. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12239. Epub 2016 Feb 29. PMID: 26710321.
  • Wildschut, Tim & Sedikides, Constantine & Arndt, Jamie & Routledge, Clay. (2006). Nostalgia: Content, Triggers, Functions.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 91. 975-93. 10.1037/0022-3514.91.5.975.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.