Turning Straw Into Gold: Good Old Days Syndrome

Posted by Kerrie Denner

Romanticizing the past can make us feel bad about the present.

by Toni Bernhard, JD

As many of you know, my life changed dramatically 12 years ago when I unexpectedly had to give up my career due to chronic illness. For the most part, I’ve adjusted to my new life, but I still catch myself engaged in distorted thinking about the past. I’ve taken to calling it Good Old Days Syndrome.

One need not have health problems to suffer from this syndrome. It’s an equal opportunity mental distortion! When it attacks, my thinking runs along these lines:

Before I got sick, my life was perfect: working as a professor was an absolute pleasure; my family life was everything I could wish for; I was free to go where I wanted, when I wanted.

True, true, and true? Not exactly. Being a professor was not always enjoyable. Although I liked most of my students, the occasional one could be unpleasant (one student—whom I can’t discuss due to privacy considerations—was the stuff of nightmares). Workloads could be demanding. On the lighter side, I've yet to meet another teacher who doesn't dread reading Blue Books. Family life was definitely good, but it could be stressful at times. And do I really believe that I could go anywhere I wanted to at will?

No, life wasn't perfect back then. It had its joys and sorrows, its successes and disappointments—just as my life does now. When I find myself putting that "old" life on a pedestal and thinking that I was always happy, I try to remember that this is a distorted view of the past that serves only to make me feel bad about the present.

We also tend to reminisce about other eras as if they were the Good Old Days. For example, on April 8, 2013, Brian Williams of NBC News began his report on the death of Annette Funicello by wistfully referring to the 1950s as "a sweeter era, one of genuine innocence." I don’t think so. Not only was that the era of Red baiting, but in those "sweet and innocent" 1950s, in many states in the U.S., it would have been a crime for my two children to marry the people they fell in love with because those two people happen to be of different races than my children.

My Good Old Days era is the 60s. Ah, those were the days: rock and roll, change the world, love love love. But recently, I saw a story on television about Birmingham, Alabama where, in 1963, children were hosed by police and attacked by police dogs as they peacefully marched to protest segregation. (The children had to march by themselves because their parents had been told they’d lose their jobs if they participated, even during off-work hours.)

And then there were earlier eras when people died of diseases that we’re protected against by popping a pill or getting a vaccination. My mother-in-law had a close friend who grew up in the 1930s. Many years ago, she told me that at the first sign of sniffles in the winter, her parents wouldn’t allow her to play outside until spring, They didn’t want to take a chance that the sniffles would turn into bronchitis or some other kind of bacterial infection, for which, today, we’d just take an antibiotic.

Try this test. The following passage was written by a well-known author for a local magazine. Take a guess at when she wrote it:

We are so overwhelmed with things these days that our lives are all, more or less, cluttered…Everyone is hurrying and usually just a little late. Notice the faces of the people who rush past on the streets…They nearly all have a strained, harassed look, and anyone you meet will tell you there is no time for anything anymore.

What’s your guess? 2013? 1990? Whenever you were growing up? Does it have you waxing nostalgic about the Good Old Days when city life was slower-paced and much more quiet?

Test over: It was written in 1924 by Laura Ingalls Wilder—while living on a farm in rural Missouri!

Here’s an account of my most recent attack of Good Old Days Syndrome. A few weeks ago, my husband was out of town, so I had to go to the pharmacy on my own to refill a prescription. I ran into a friend whom I haven’t seen for about ten years. We embraced and found a place to sit and then chatted for about fifteen minutes, catching up on news about our families and about some people we know in common.

When I got home, I was overcome with sadness and fell into a funk over this lost friendship, which I was suddenly cherishing deeply. As I do when I recognize that I’m dissatisfied and unhappy, I looked for the source of my misery in some kind of frustrated desire (a technique I call “the tracing exercise” in my new book How to Wake Up). I “traced” until I found that place where I wasn’t getting what I wanted. And there it was: I wanted this friendship to be as wonderful as it once had been.

At that point, it dawned on me that this friendship had never been the way I was mocking it up to be in the Good Old Days. She and I were never close. We mostly saw each other because we had a friend in common. We liked each other, but neither of us was motivated to build a close relationship. And yet, there I was, mocking up a fantasy—a distorted memory of the Good Old Days—and then feeling miserable about it.

As soon as I saw this distorted thinking, my funk lifted. Yes, I was still a bit blue, but it was a sadness that periodically arises over my isolation and lack of contact with so many people I used to be around. I know this sadness well; it comes and goes. I can ease its pain by being extra kind to myself. This “comes and goes” sadness is an entirely different feeling from the miserable funk I’d fallen into from having romanticized a Good Old Days relationship with this woman, when that relationship had, in fact, never existed.

So, it’s good to be on alert for Good Old Days Syndrome and to remember that life has its ups and downs, its joys and sorrows, its justices and injustices, in every era and every decade.

Source: Psychology Today


Accessed 08/21/2013

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