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Looking Backwards: Nostalgia or Reflection?

By Renee Langmuir September 24, 2023 Mindset

Do you ever find yourself caught in a repetitive mental loop of nostalgia? It is not uncommon, with more time on our hands, to relive our careers or past challenges from our personal lives. Some memories are quite horrifying, but the sum of these experiences is what has delivered us to this unexpectedly extraordinary moment.

Crossing over to retirement is the ceremonial exit from the tasks of youth: striving and constantly reinventing the self. Appearances and being rooted in the material world are primary in this earlier time. Making the transition to a wiser, more mature stage in life includes a different agenda: developing a more steadfast self, reevaluating the meaning of one’s life, and turning inward, rather than focusing outward.

Reminiscing Isn’t Just for the Retired

The idea of looking backwards is not solely reserved for the retired. Such pursuits are common throughout the life cycle at milestone birthdays, change of seasons, moves to a new home, or changes in employment.

There is often an emotional connection to the past when things start changing. There is the undeniable desire to hold on to the familiar when the ground starts shifting. We need a coping mechanism. The transition to retirement, however, throws a spotlight on this process, and might take up a lot of band-with during waking hours and while dreaming.

Looking Backwards Is a Genuine Task in Maturity

Carl Jung, the Swiss father of analytical psychology, mined this area in his “old age to do list”: The Seven Tasks of Old Age. They include facing the reality of living and dying, conducting a life review, defining life realistically, letting go of ego, finding a new rooting in the self, determining the meaning of one’s life, and death and spiritual rebirth.

Wouldn’t you agree that this is quite an ambitious, if not impossible, list for most? Items cannot be checked off this list without some serious contemplation of the past. This will require significant time and effort.

Nostalgia vs. Reflection

There are two paths to these overwhelming and profound tasks: nostalgia and reflection. Keep in mind that the tasks unfold naturally, but not the process we choose. This is not a Robert Frost Road Not Taken moment. There will be excursions down both roads for a long time, until one path is chosen. The outcome of this choice can have a significant effect on the quality of the later years.

It has been my experience that retirees who are not accustomed to self-reflection operate in the nostalgia mode. This can be ok when life is spent with friends and family who shared the same decades. It is not an effective communication style when paths cross with younger people. An emphasis on nostalgia can keep one stuck in a time that will never return.

The Dark Side of Nostalgia

Surprisingly, most of us do not really have many negative connotations for the word “nostalgia.” It is commonly viewed as a wistful longing for the past, a time with positive personal connections. How could looking back on the best times of our lives harm us? After all, these were times of comfort with pleasant memories, and they can be summoned up at a moment’s notice.

However, the Greeks knew nostalgia was a minefield. The very word comes from “nostos,” meaning return (ok so far so good) and “algos” (suffering). There it is. Although it is tempting to affirm our best selves, and to use these memories to provide continuity in our lives, and comfort during the stress of retirement, nostalgia is not the path that will move us forward. We still have a good number of years to live, if we are lucky, and need a new perspective, not a rehash of the familiar.

By clinging to one’s identity as a mother of young children, romantic events, music, and clothing of another era, a professional identity, and all other iterations of the “past you,” the mind is populated with things that have already transpired. These things take away from the present moment, where anything is possible. The idea is to hold on to memories that have the power of propulsion and to let go of things that encourage stasis.

Looking backwards as a default setting is also a highway to unresolved issues, unfortunate events, painful life lessons, and those deep hurts that still lurk. That is where the concept of “reflection” comes in. Retirement is a time to process these fiends to make room for the unique opportunities that lie ahead. This has been termed “reflective nostalgia.”

Moving on with Mindfulness and Reflection

Being locked in the nostalgia of only the positives of one’s life is a growth-stunting arrangement. Think of a plant with pot-bound roots. It’s time for replanting into a different container. This will be very difficult if one cannot let go of expectations of how things should be or the need to be right. There will be the need to let go of an old identity to begin building a new one, and all at an advanced age!

There Will Be a Need to Replace Pain with Forward Motion

Are there any strategies for this essential work? The field of mindfulness, once again, offers help. Try to create physical distance from thoughts of the past. Use a mental stop sign when the mind wanders into the past too often. Practice self-care. Forgive and stay present.

A workshop leader for seniors in nursing homes also has some excellent suggestions: Consider passing your life story down to the next generation. At the very least, contemplate your most important accomplishments, the time you felt the most alive, and your hopes for the future. Be sure to include yourself in those wishes!

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are most of your relationships in life based on nostalgia for the past or shared prior experiences? Have you been able to establish new connections with people or activities in this new stage of life?

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Judith Louise

My circumstance never delivered us the choice of retirement. On his 50th birthday my husband collapsed. This began 20 plus years of being his personal carer. We have been together since we were 17yrs old. He is my best friend. As I right this my husband has now been in hospital for one month. He is seriously ill and fighting for his life. Our life has been stress after stress. We lost 20 yrs of working and saving from our income. Instead circumstance gave us a basic disability pension. Recently, as we planned for our next stage of life we find ourselves financially insecure. I have a rare spinal disease and cannot travel, nor shop, nor drive. If I need to visit my husband in hospital I have to enlist a driver. We were not blessed with children. Our extended family who were elderly have died. No doubt there are countless people worldwide who never have the luxury of planning their retirement.


I’ll have to re-read this article and put it into practice. I am stuck in past memories when I was ignorant and happy. Raising my kids, spending time with family and friends, seaside vacations, church, ladies Bible Studies, and outing with my family and grandkids. Photos of bygone years when I still was happy. Fast forward to 2019 when I found out what my husband was up to since 2014, devastated me. Things escalated from there and now in 2023 we’ve been in-house separated since 2020. My kids and grandkids scattered across the world and we’re new immigrants in a new country. Difficult making friends when we’re separated and difficult trying to find a church I can attend alone after 41 years of marriage. I reminisce a lot about the past and sometime just want to huddle in a corner and dram about bygone days when I thought I was happy. Trying to get out of my head to enjoy the present and really start living is a battle.

Maggie Daly

Horrible isn’t it. I know I’ve been there. I had to move on. Moved house,volunteered at a charity shop,got a dog,trained as a bereavement volunteer for the hospice,joined a yoga meditation group. I’m on holiday in Sth Africa with my son, not always easy but new memories for us both. I try to forget my ex and live my own life. It takes time but get out there and find your life again . Good luck

The Author

Renee Langmuir was an educator for 34 years in public schools and at the university level. After an unplanned retirement, Renee chronicled her transition in a series of personal essays on the website, Her writing has appeared on the websites Agebuzz, Next Avenue, Forbes and in The AARP Ethel Newsletter.

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