It’s the right time of year to be talking about ghosts. The ones I’m talking about here aren’t those that come out on Halloween though. But they can still be pretty spooky.

I’m talking about people from the past re-surfacing in our lives, either by design or by chance. How that affects us and what it means.

It’s often those people who haunt us slightly. There may be something unfinished about the relationship. Some loose ends that might never be tied up.

These are themes coming up not just in my clients’ lives but also for me and my friends. I have a milestone birthday next year and as I and many of my friends hurtle towards 40, it’s no surprise that the past is rearing its head and smacking us all round the chops a bit. For milestone birthdays mean parties, reunions and, at this age, a lot of knackered parents who don’t get out much getting nostalgic and taking stock about where they’re at in life.

“Regrets, I’ve had a few…”

Frank Sinatra may have had “too few to mention” but most of us do have some regrets about things done or not done in the past. And it’s part of the human condition to ruminate on this stuff. ‘What if x hadn’t happened, what if I hadn’t done y?’ we wonder, spurred on by alcohol and bleak love songs (Adele, anyone?).

We all engage in this pursuit from time to time, don’t we? Why else would Bryan Adams’ ‘Summer of 69’ and that girl who told him that she’d ‘wait forever’ still be played in every alcohol-soaked bar in the country? I’m more than a bit nostalgic myself and still have the t-shirt my holiday boyfriend sent me back in 1997, soaked in his Davidoff Cool Water aftershave (though we definitely didn’t say we’d wait forever. In fact, I’d bet good money that he didn’t even make it to the end of the holiday).

Such formative experiences are particularly potent. First love and all that. And there’s a scientific explanation for this. The ‘peak-end rule’ developed by psychologists tells us that the way we remember events is not made up of a total of every individual moment. We tend to remember and overemphasise the peak (best or worst) moment and the last moment and neglect the duration[1]. This explains why the end of a brief but intense relationship can hurt just as much, if not more, than the end of a long-term one.

So, these early experiences I’m talking about can often seem more powerful than relationships in our later adult years. That’s inevitable when you compare the high drama of your teens and twenties with the more hum drum aspects of an adult existence; joint bank accounts, mortgages and the joint obligations of parenthood.

Decisions, decisions

What these ‘ghosts’ also tend to remind us of are our choices in life. Whether we realise it or not, we go through life constantly making decisions. Certain paths that we take prevent us from taking others. “Alternatives exclude”, as the author John Gardner famously said.

80’s kids like me will remember the Choose Your Own Adventure multiple ending storybooks from childhood. If you didn’t end up liking the story you chose initially, you could always backtrack to the relevant fork in the road and go another way, choosing a new path that you liked the look of more. But real life doesn’t usually work like that. For every road we take, we’re simultaneously closing the door on another.

People talk about life being too short, but often it feels like it can be too narrow.

It’s not possible for us to fit in all the things we’d like to. This applies to so many things; for those of us with kids, the cost is the loss of freedom, sleep, money. For those with high-powered jobs, the price is seeing less of our homes and our families and having less free time. And it applies to our relationships. Often there are people from our past who mean something to us but who don’t quite fit into our present-day lives.

Some people do try to slot such people in as friends while others decide that they simply can’t make all the jigsaw pieces fit.

Playing with fire?

There are good reasons to be wary of these ghosts of course. I remember in 2004 at the peak of the success of the website Friends Reunited, a spike in the divorce rate was attributed to people’s new-found ability to get back in touch with former flames easily. So, we know that it can be playing with fire to keep in contact with exes. There’s also a danger that living in the past can take energy away from our present. If you’re looking to meet someone but you tend to be surrounded by a coterie of exes for example, then clearly it can send the wrong signal to potential dates.

But these ‘ghosts’ can also remind us of positive aspects of ourselves that we may have lost touch with over the years. Take someone dealing with the aftermath of having kids whose sense of identity has gone a bit all over the shop. Being in touch with someone from the past can motivate someone dealing with that to try to get back to themselves a bit, to rediscover themselves in a healthy way.

Unfinished Business

So, is it best to leave well alone or to open Pandora’s Box? Who knows? It’s different for everyone.

But we do need to be wary of expectations that seeing these people from our past will leave us with a proper ‘ending’ and a neat conclusion wrapped up in a bow. Often that doesn’t happen. We have to learn to be OK with some things left undone and some questions left unanswered. Sometimes that means we feel grief and loss. And it’s good to allow ourselves to have that.

If we can give ourselves space to grieve for the paths that we didn’t take, then it can leave us freer to enjoy the ones that we did.


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