Nostalgia is one of the most interesting and complicated feelings that people have. People often think of nostalgia as a happy, comforting feeling, but it can also be very painful.
So, why does nostalgia hurt? And what can we do about it?
According to experts, here are the reasons why nostalgia hurts, along with ways to deal with it.
Lena Suarez-Angelino, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Writer, Choosing Therapy
Nostalgia can hurt for many reasons. It is a reminder of how things could have been or what they used to be.
Being nostalgic about past relationships can leave you feeling sad and even mournful.
You may be missing someone, missing the person you used to be, or even a lifestyle you were living — maybe this is before having children, before moving, or before a major life change.
You create a narrative for yourself of shoulda, would, and coulda
As life moves on, you may find it difficult to let go of what you once had, creating a narrative for yourself of shoulda, woulda, coulda.
- Maybe you “shoulda” been more forgiving.
- Maybe you “woulda” communicated better after going to couple’s therapy.
- Maybe you “coulda” tried to work on things one last time.
Nostalgia has a way of highlighting and convincing you of the things that you could have done differently to produce a different outcome, which is why nostalgia hurts.
It has a way of only reminding you the good things in life you no longer have
When you’re in a situation or relationship that is not supportive or loving, it makes sense to leave and break up; however, nostalgia has a way of only reminding you of the good things in life you no longer have, often casting any negative or painful memories aside.
It is possible you see your ex on social media or out and about, and you’re flooded with what could have been the potential future, and you become sad, regretful, and sometimes even hurt.
Related: What to Do When You Miss Your Ex
Letting go of the past to become more present
It is okay to be nostalgic from time to time, but don’t stay there for too long.
In order to embrace nostalgia to the point where you can let it go. When finding yourself in a state of nostalgia, take a breath, smile, and think to yourself, “I’m glad I was able to experience it at all.” Then shift your focus to the beautiful things that you have in your life at this very moment.
After all, most things in life become nostalgic after some time.
Victoria Woodruff, MSW, LCSW-C
Social Worker and Therapist, Woodruff Counseling
The memories kept us from seeking what we truly wanted
What is nostalgia?
Nostalgia refers to that feeling and thought of wanting to return to a different time. Sometimes, nostalgia can be about a period of time. It might refer to a place (like an old family home) and other things that you may be longing for from the past.
Nostalgia… was it real or just a dream?
Our mind is like a video recorder. Our brain is recording every second of every day; the thoughts, feelings, sights, sounds… every experience that we have.
Our brain doesn’t catalog all of that information.
When we look back at an experience, we are really playing a highlight reel. How we are feeling today and what we are seeking emotionally strongly dictates what we reflect on and the lens through which we see the past.
You are struggling romantically and haven’t had much success. You think back to a relationship that you had at the beginning of college.
Emotionally you want to feel a sense of connection and are longing for a fulfilling relationship. So, as you think about that past relationship, you remember the time that you took a road trip, had a date for a wedding, or spent time on the couch watching your favorite TV show.
Your mind plays these memories like a hallmark movie pulling out all the good memories that fill that place inside of you that is longing for deep connection.
Somehow, it leaves out the flat tire during the road trip that led to a fight on the side of the interstate… and so many other negative experiences that were intertwined.
Rather than reminiscing about that perfect guy in college who checked off all the boxes… consider what you want in a relationship today. In truth, no relationship is perfect.
Thinking back doesn’t allow you to focus on what you want for a future relationship and take action to achieve it.
The key problem with nostalgia is getting stuck.
You have goals, things that you want to achieve, and places you want to go… we’re not a Dr. Seuss book, but most of us have dreams. Focusing on the past does not allow you to take action in the present. If you are not taking actions that move you closer to your goals, you’re stuck.
This applies to so much more than just relationships. This might apply to a job, living situation, or any number of things.
I was working with a client; every year around the holidays, she would share fond memories of large family gatherings. She talked about a house bustling with people, a fire in the fireplace, tables decorated and filled with food and a sense of belonging.
Her family had changed over the course of time and no longer celebrated holidays as they had when she was younger.
There was nothing wrong with the smile that came to her face when she talked about these times. The issue was in how it was impacting her life in the present. She talked about her ideal holiday and yet she spent many holidays alone.
Together we worked on ideas for creating new traditions. We started by exploring what was most important; in her case, it was the people. Then we began exploring new ways to celebrate the holidays with people that she loved.
The problem was that as she considered new ways of spending the holidays, she always compared them to the past. The past, as we know, tells a fantasy.
Nothing could ever measure up to what she had in her mind because we were comparing the very real present to a very narrow view of the past.
In this case, nostalgia became a hurdle.
Those memories kept her from seeking what she truly wanted, which was the company of others.
She eventually worked through this and went on to make new memories, but as she worked through those feelings, she spent many holidays alone, and those happy memories created pain.
What’s the problem with remembering the good?
Let’s be clear on one thing. Positive memories are not all bad. Of course, I want you to be able to think about happy times or your favorite place.
If any of you have ever been to therapy or practiced a form of mindfulness, you might have been asked to think of a place that you find comforting.
There are subtle differences when we talk about nostalgia, daydreaming, and happy memories.
Nostalgia is a longing for the past—a strong pull or desire to be in a different time. You’re not simply reflecting on a pleasant moment from your past, and you are yearning to be back in that moment.
If you’re fighting to be in a different time, then you can’t really be here, in the present.
Daydreaming is not entirely good or bad. Let’s say, for instance, that you are sitting on a back deck overlooking a beautiful river and trees.
The sun is beating down, and you close your eyes, taking in the sounds, and begin to think about what it would be like to go out on the town with your favorite celebrity.
Okay… arguably, you are on vacation and have no other responsibilities. You are enjoying the moment.
On the other hand, if you were driving down the road on your way home and allowed your mind to wander, you’d be disengaging from the present in a way that might put yourself and others at risk.
There are certainly times when we are afforded the luxury of daydreaming, but if it is interfering with your responsibilities and or getting in the way of you enjoying your “real” life, then it is likely a problem.
Happy memories are something we all deserve. Many of us have these memories and will find them to be stirred up from time to time. My grandmother passed years ago, but we still spend most holidays swapping stories as a family.
The difference between this experience and nostalgia is that we are not limited by the past.
We continue to engage in the present and connect with others through our memories.
Harnessing the power of nostalgia
Some of us experience an intense version of nostalgia and are continuously reminded of a time when we felt more ourselves, more at peace, and happier.
- What is it about these memories that keeps pulling you in?
- How can you take these memories and turn them into a vision for your life going forward?
I worked with an individual who talked about life growing up in a small town. He loved the simplicity of knowing all of his neighbors and working with his hands.
This young man had grown up working all sorts of odd jobs and was now working as a highly successful professional making six figures.
But he wasn’t happy.
He talked about trying to make this new life fit his personality, but the truth was he knew what made him happy, and it was not going to be working in a suit and living in a city.
So, he came up with a plan. He worked to make enough money so that he could comfortably buy a piece of land that he could farm. He worked the land and would do consulting work to help maintain a comfortable income.
In this instance, his strong desire to return to a simpler time, a quieter home, and a slower pace of life… led him to assemble a plan and take action.
Keep in mind, though, that he knew things were never going to be the same. He had become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and sense of financial security. He wanted to be able to do other things like travel.
He carefully reflected on the pros and cons of making such a drastic change and knew that it would come with some sacrifices.
You can do the same in your life. Some things in life are lost, but our values remain. What is important to you? Why this memory?
I think back to my grandfather helping with school work, playing catch, and spending those simple moments connecting that mean the world to me. He is gone, but I can learn something from these memories. Rather than allowing the memories to pull me inward, trapped in my own mind…
I consider the values. My grandfather valued family, children, and connection. Those moments carried so much meaning that they are part of my values and shape the way in which I live my life.
I make a point to prioritize the people that I love. I changed my schedule at work so that I’d be off in time to see my 3-year-old niece’s soccer game. She’s 3, and she doesn’t even know what direction to run.
It has nothing to do with the game, helping shape a future athlete… it’s about the smiles, laughs, and letting her know that she was worth showing up for.
Let your values guide you as you consider what you want for your life today and in the future.
Things to keep in mind:
We all want to reflect on happy memories from time to time. But you need to ask yourself a few questions:
- Am I reflecting so much on the past that I am failing to live in the present?
- Are my memories of a person, place, or situation informing an important decision?
- If so, have an awareness that memories tend to take on a very negative or very positive extreme. Awareness is key.
- Are my memories of the past preventing me from moving forward in my life?
- Nostalgia is typically a longing for a happier time. If you are stuck thinking about a simpler or happier time in your past, you’re looking backward. When we look backward, we lose our ability to make choices that will lead us in the direction of the life we want.
If you struggle with nostalgia and are finding it difficult to move forward and live in the present, it may be time to seek help from a professional. Consider reaching out and talking to a licensed therapist.
Processing your memories, identifying your goals, and developing a plan to help you work towards them may be the support you need.
Nostalgia can hurt when it triggers grief
Many people think of grief as occurring only when a loved one dies, but in reality, we grieve over infinite different types of loss— including the loss of significant moments in our lives.
For some people, engaging with nostalgia, such as looking through pictures of loved ones who have passed, helps to soothe feelings of grief.
But for others, doing the same activity causes intense pain and for grief to swell up as they think about how their loved ones are gone, as are the times when they could be together.
Often we choose to engage with nostalgia, but other times we are caught off guard by it.
Nostalgia is very tied to our senses and can get sparked if we hear a song that reminds us of a particular time or a perfume that reminds us of a loved one. Again, while some people describe this feeling as positive, for others, it is intensely painful.
And while nostalgia can cause pain to us individually, it can also cause cultural distress. It is not uncommon to focus on the positive aspects of entire generations while ignoring the damaging aspects of those times in history.
No era is ideal.
It is perfectly normal to want to remember what was positive, and also, it’s important to have a holistic view of our lives and society at large, or else we risk making the mistakes of the past in the future.
How to deal with nostalgia
Whether you have chosen to engage with nostalgia or find yourself caught unawares, I invite you to notice the feelings that come up for you without assigning any judgment to what you find.
If feelings become overwhelming, remember that you can always return here to the present moment and re-engage with the past if and when you feel ready.
If the feeling is tolerable, start to get curious about what your nostalgia is trying to express to you, as there might be a deeper message.
Perhaps sit for a moment and contemplate whether there are aspects of your memory that are not serving you, such as overly identifying with a particular moment in time to the exclusion of other aspects of those events.
Noticing that there were negative feelings and events during these times doesn’t negate your positive (or perceived positive) experience.
Remember that nothing in this life is either/or, it is all both/and.
Psychotherapist and Life Coach & Relationship Expert, One Life Counselling & Coaching
Nostalgia is one of our most complicated emotions, tapping into the deeper part of our memories in order to make us feel a unique and indescribable feeling.
Everybody experiences nostalgia, and we feel it at every age and across every part of our lives. It is a bittersweet emotion, and for many of us, it can hurt quite a bit for reasons we may not always fully understand.
It forces us to compare the good parts of our lives to the bad
The pain of nostalgia is different from the pain of other forms of sadness, such as grief or regret, and can be difficult to articulate, especially when asked to explain.
This is because the pain caused by nostalgia is not as straightforward as our other emotions — instead, nostalgia hurts because it forces us to compare the good parts of our lives to the bad, making us hold space for both happiness and sadness at once.
Nostalgia, at its very essence, is looking back at the way things used to be and experiencing the feelings and memories associated with those moments.
This process causes us to come to the subconscious conclusion that the “good times” in our lives are over or that things will never be how they once were.
This is a difficult concept for anyone to reconcile and can often lead to deeper feelings of depression, escalating feelings of nostalgia into something heavier and darker.
The benefits of nostalgia
While nostalgia definitely causes us pain, it is also beneficial to our mental health, often for reasons we don’t even recognize on the surface.
This is because the core of nostalgia revolves around connecting our memories of the past to the future, which helps us grow more in touch with our sense of self and what makes us whole.
Another reason that nostalgia can be beneficial to our health and our lives is the fact that by looking back at happier memories or memories of the “good old days,” we feel a desire to return to this happiness.
This can be the source of motivation for self-improvement in many people who are struggling to articulate their feelings in a way that can help them make a positive change in their lives.
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Nostalgia is a consistent reminder of when we were a better person
Why is my nostalgia bringing me misery?
Nostalgia is often used in media to refer to past eras of quality music, good style, and overall better living.
But it’s not always that simple.
When you consider the past, it can identify times when your mental health felt better or when you were in a better place emotionally. If someone is struggling in their relationship or with symptoms of mental illness, nostalgia could feel like something dangling in front of them that they want but cannot reach.
It could be a consistent reminder of when they were a “better person.”
Especially in the past two years, it is guaranteed that the majority of the population caught themselves saying, “remember when things were easier? Remember when life was better?”
Although having the memories can bring comfort, it can also bring the pain of the realization that we are far from how we once felt during a better time in our life.
But… the question I ask my clients is, “was it better? Or were we just able to handle it?”
Nostalgia may feel painful because when we look back, the past seems like it was manageable. We were used to the ebb and flow of that period of our life. Things we were struggling with were familiar. And, while struggling, we had things that we looked to for enjoyment.
Change brings discomfort, and discomfort feels uncontrolled: “I was able to handle the past, but now it’s the future, and I have no idea what I am doing. I miss how it used to feel.”
Sometimes nostalgia is painful because we simply were used to handling things the way they once were. Not every aspect of the past was enjoyable, but we sure were able to handle it at the time.
Focus on how things are going now
- What feels out of control?
- What is it you’re yearning for from the past?
- What do we have control over right now?
Sure, we don’t enjoy every piece, but what are some things we do enjoy? Can we focus on those little specks of happiness? Because someday, we might just feel nostalgic about that.
It triggers dissatisfaction with your present life
A yearning for your past, often when times were happier and more carefree, is known as nostalgia.
When longing for the past (a time you cannot reclaim), it can trigger dissatisfaction with your present self or life circumstances.
Sometimes you might feel you did not live up to your childhood expectations. That is the regret you feel from nostalgia and wish you could time-travel back to your youth.
This can result in a negative fixation of thoughts that can cause depressive feelings.
It’s compelling to remember old memories, but it can elicit pain at the same time because you dwell on times that you cannot reclaim. You miss what was considered “the good old days” and process that as much as you want to relive those memories, it is unobtainable.
During nostalgia, a particular scent, familiar scenery, or a previous show you used to watch all hinder you from moving on from past people, experiences, and places that were once in your life.
Nostalgic memories are small fragments of what truly happened. This often paints a more ideal picture than what occurred. Your more romanticized rendition of a past experience can result in emotional distress.
With nostalgia, your mood can become negatively altered, and the probability of anxiety can increase.
Studies have reported that people who experience worry talking about their nostalgia have increased anxiety and depression. Loneliness is common when feeling nostalgic.
It is nice to relive old memories; however, if you find yourself constantly ruminating on them, it is a signal that you need to create a fuller present life with new people and experiences.
Transformational Complementary Therapist
Because the person is still connected to a place or period
Nostalgia is a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to the past, and it invokes powerful feelings and sentimental longing when we think about a memory from our past.
Nostalgia can be painful because it involves the heart in terms of emotion and feeling because there is still a connection at an etheric level energetically to this person, place, or period in our lives, and there are invisible etheric cords connected to a person or pet or place also; you could say that it’s almost like a tug of the heartstrings.
Nostalgia can really hurt if it is excessive or on a daily basis, as this means a person is stuck in the past and not living in the present or is in denial.
It can also become a place of reflection, especially for the elderly, as they think about certain situations or periods in their lives or people usually fondly with rose-tinted glasses.
Poet, Literary Critic, College Professor, Essayist, Playwright, and Fiction Writer
Memories of the past involve departed friends and relatives
Nostalgia hurts because memories of the past remind us that we have lost friends and family members who meant a lot to us. I’m 73 years old, and when I think about my childhood, I miss my friends, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins who have died.
Even though the memories are often happy, it is sad that I cannot share the memories with some special people in my life.
For example, my birthday is the same day as my parents’ anniversary. But both of my parents are now dead. I still enjoy having a birthday, but I miss sharing the day with my parents.
Similarly, when Thanksgiving comes each year, I remember celebrating this holiday for decades with my mother’s twin brother’s family. My aunt and uncle have died, so I miss them every Thanksgiving.
Nostalgia reminds us that we could have made different choices
Also, nostalgia hurts because we may wish that we had made different choices in life.
When we remember the past, we often feel regret that we lost track of some friends or did not grasp a job or relationship opportunity that opened up for us. Sometimes, we wish that we could go back in time and change our decisions.
For example, I had an on-campus job interview for a college teaching job in Minnesota that I thought I would certainly get because the English Department faculty members really liked me.
Shortly after this experience, I had a phone interview for another teaching position in Kansas City. Because I thought that I would get the Minnesota job, I was not as enthusiastic about the other interview.
However, I didn’t get the job in Minnesota because a vice president objected, so I should have focused more on the Kansas City position. I wound up having neither job. I regret assuming that I would get the first job because it resulted in my losing another job opportunity.
Similarly, when I was in my twenties, two men wanted to have a relationship with me. I focused on Dan, but he soon lost interest. I should have focused on Morry, who was more stable. Remembering this period in my life is somewhat painful.
Carol Gee, MA
Author, “Telling Stories, Sharing Confidences“
Some old memories hurt, but not always
First of all, I don’t believe that nostalgia has to hurt. Sure, some memories of bygone times in our lives hurt when we revisit them, but not always. I have more positive memories than those that hurt.
For example, growing up, my mother used to always buy my sister and me school clothes from Sears.
A survivor of the ‘Great Depression,’ although she had a good government job and worked a side hustle as a licensed beautician, money was still tight.
So that school clothes shopping day, she spotted these sandals on sale that she thought would fit my sister, age nine at the time. White with multiple colored faux stones and wearing a size nine shoe at the time, mother thought they would look nice with her long knee-high socks.
My sister thought about how much teasing and bullying she would receive if she wore them to school and started to melt down right there in the store.
Frustrated, my mother told her if she didn’t want them, she would wear her old school shoes that year. Whenever my sister and I remember this event, we crack up laughing.
Remembering this and even a few hurtful nostalgic moments has strengthened our bond throughout our lives.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is It Okay to Cry Over Nostalgia?
Nostalgia is a complex feeling that can evoke a range of emotions, including sadness, longing, and happiness. When we reflect on memories from the past, it’s not uncommon to experience feelings of sadness, especially if those memories are associated with loss, change, or life transitions. In some cases, this sadness can lead to tears, which many people find confusing or embarrassing.
However, crying over nostalgia is an entirely normal and healthy response. It’s a way for us to process our emotions and come to terms with the changes and losses that are an inevitable part of life. Crying releases pent-up emotions, making us feel lighter and more at peace.
In addition to being a healthy way to process emotions, crying over nostalgia can also bring people closer together. Sharing nostalgic memories and experiences with others can deepen relationships, foster a sense of belonging, and create new memories to cherish in the future.
What Triggers Nostalgia the Most?
• Sights and sounds: Certain sights, such as old buildings or objects, and sounds, such as a particular song or sound effect, can evoke powerful feelings of nostalgia. These sensory cues can immediately transport people back to a different time and place in their lives.
• Smells: The sense of smell is closely linked to memory and emotions, making it a powerful trigger of nostalgia. The smell of baking cookies, for example, can bring back memories of childhood and the comfort of home.
• Taste: Food can be a strong trigger of nostalgia, as taste is also linked to memory. The taste of a favorite dish or snack can bring back memories of specific moments and experiences.
• Personal events: Personal events, such as birthday parties, holidays, or graduations, can be powerful triggers. These events often hold special meaning and evoke powerful emotions, making them difficult to forget.
• People: Seeing or thinking about specific people, such as friends, family members, or a former partner, can trigger feelings of nostalgia. These people may have been a part of significant moments or experiences in a person’s life, making them difficult to forget.
Can Nostalgia Have a Positive Effect on People?
The answer is yes. Here are some ways in which nostalgia can have a positive impact:
• Providing a sense of comfort: Nostalgia can bring back positive memories and emotions from the past, creating a sense of comfort and familiarity. This can be especially helpful during difficult or stressful times.
• Boosting mood: Reminiscing about positive experiences from the past can increase feelings of happiness and well-being. This can be a great way to lift one’s mood and improve their overall outlook.
• Improving relationships: Sharing nostalgic memories with others can strengthen relationships and create a more profound sense of connection.
• Increasing creativity: Nostalgia can inspire creativity by tapping into memories and experiences that may have been forgotten. This can lead to new ideas and perspectives.
• Enhancing self-esteem: Reflecting on past achievements and positive experiences can increase self-esteem and confidence.
How Does Nostalgia Impact Mental Health?
Nostalgia can be a source of comfort and reassurance during difficult times. Recalling positive memories can provide a sense of connection to a time or place that feels safe and secure. This can help reduce stress and anxiety and promote feelings of happiness and well-being.
On the other hand, excessive or frequent nostalgia can lead to depression and negative feelings. When people dwell too much on the past, they may feel lost and sad about what has changed or been lost. This can lead to feelings of dissatisfaction with the present and a longing for a time that no longer exists.
Additionally, nostalgia can also trigger feelings of regret and guilt. When people remember past events or situations, they may feel regretful of things they did or didn’t do and guilty for mistakes they made. These feelings can lead to low self-esteem, shame, and negative self-talk.
Why Do Good Memories Hurt?
Good memories can sometimes cause pain and sadness, and this phenomenon is a common experience for many people. Here are some reasons why good memories can hurt:
• Nostalgia: Good memories often evoke feelings of nostalgia, which is a longing for the past. This can bring up emotions of sadness and regret, especially when the present moment is not as fulfilling as the memory.
• Loss: Good memories can also remind us of what has been lost, such as a person, place, or experience that is no longer present in our lives. This can lead to feelings of grief and sadness.
• Comparisons: When we reflect on good memories, we often compare them to our current experiences and circumstances. If our present situation falls short, this can lead to feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
• Unresolved emotions: Sometimes, good memories are associated with unresolved emotions or experiences. Reflecting on these memories can bring up old feelings and create a sense of emotional discomfort.
• New reality: Good memories can also be a reminder of the passage of time and the fact that things have changed. This realization can bring up feelings of sadness and acceptance of a new reality.
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