The Underbelly of Nostalgia

It takes courage to look unflinchingly at our past without the rose-tinted glasses of “the good ‘ole days.”

Memories are a bit like movies: they stir emotions in us, but there’s a lot going on behind the scenes.

The reality of green screens, costumes, makeup— not to mention the panoply of human challenges that arrive when humans work together (i.e. sickness, fatigue, personality clashes, etc.), never make it into the final perfect cut.

Movie for One

Each of us enters a movie theater every day, 24/7. During sleeping hours we are unconscious of the action on the screens of our psyche. Sure, we might mention to a friend:

“I had the strangest dream about my house that started to leak and then fall apart from the top on down. What do you think that’s all about?”

Your friend might wax Freudian on you and say the house symbolizes your life or your marriage or your health. Regardless, the dream interpretation is intended to be considered by the receiver of the dream alone: YOU.

The movie that plays during our conscious hours loves to replay scenes of nostalgia: the “good ole’ days.” The days before:

  • the car accident
  • that family member died
  • puberty arrived
  • the big move
  • the surgery

The list goes on as do the scenes we replay for a dopamine hit of what we perceive as benign nostalgia.

A Fate Worse Than Death

Socrates is famous for stating the following shortly before his death:

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Ultimately, the Greek philosopher chose death over exile. For Socrates, to be exiled and unable to seek and examine life was a fate worse than death.

The Danger of Rose-Colored Glasses

There’s a subtle yet distinctive difference between appreciating memories of the past and altering them to fit the narrative you want to see.

Wearing rose-colored glasses in the face of something painful is like wearing beer googles when you start a relationship: it won’t end well.

The Fallout

So what’s the big deal? What’s so terrible about keeping our rose-tinted glasses on indefinitely?

“The body keeps score.” Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

Maybe you keep showing up to your family’s Thanksgiving dinners and smile while Uncle Bill gets drunker and louder as the evening meal continues. Your friendly exterior belies the stomach churning and shoulder knotting in your body.

Perhaps you find your personal movie theater replaying scenes from before you moved and left behind your family and friends. With rose-colored glasses, you find yourself saying things like:

“I miss them so much.”

or

“It’s so much better over there.”

But when you take off your rose-colored glasses, when you sit quite in that dark theater of your mind, you see a different movie playing: you miss the idea of them, of who you wanted them to be, not who they actually are.

After Death

When something dies, new life can begin. The same is true for those memories we’ve glazed with the high-fructose corn syrup of unhealthy nostalgia. 

A part of us has to die to accept the past as it was and not how we wished it would be.

 Acceptance means awareness has arrived and will affect our choices going forward.

And maybe then we can appreciate the past without the need to reach for those rose-tinted glasses. We can look back and see a life lived on our terms; embracing the reality of our experiences, so we are free to choose what to keep and what no longer serves us.

Are You Laughing in Pain?

Great comedians like Robbin Williams and Lucille Ball did it. They laughed despite their pain. Learn the difference between humor as a release and humor as a deflective strategy.


I have a dear friend from college who I refer to as The Deflection King. When things get serious, he goes for humor. It takes intelligence to throw out the quick zingers he often does. Most of the time, his comedy is welcome, but there are times when his personal stand-up routine is both sad and frustrating.

What Does Deflection Mean Anyway?

The word deflect comes from the Latin word deflectere. De means away from + flectere means to bend. Humor is my friend’s way of deflecting a barrage of whatever unpleasant experiences come his way.

I happen to love humor, and like my friend, I’ve spent time on stages performing as a stand-up comic. Humor can be a fantastic balm to a hurting spirit. Humor sugar coats some often painful medicine, allowing it a more palatable digestion.

Humor as a Band-aid

But when we use humor to deflect, it becomes a coping strategy, a comedic Band-aid that prevents us from growing and moving forward. Deflection becomes armor that might keep us from getting hurt, but it also keeps us from experiencing life fully. Over time, that armor becomes a weight, and we might wonder why we feel so alone.

Deflection is defined as causing (something) to change direction by interposing something. Verbal deflection pushes loved ones away and keeps the deflector “safe” from feeling anything of substance. Deflection is the young sibling of Denial and will literally keep us away from the chance of experiencing a genuine connection.

My dear friend has a heart of gold. He is loyal to his family and friends. He also has uncanny comedic timing and possesses the ability to make a crowd wish they were sporting Depends. But this King of Deflection is in pain and no amount of sharp jokes will remove the turmoil in his eyes.

Comedians in Pain

I think of the late and great Robbin Williams, bringing tears of laughter to millions of people through the years. I think of Christopher Titus whose mother and sister both committed suicide; I think of Lucille Ball whose offscreen personal life did not look anything like the slapstick humor the late comedic genius displayed onscreen. Humor can be wonderfully therapeutic, but we also need to be willing to look under the spiritual hood.

So, the next time you find yourself or a loved one tapping a funny bone, ask yourself: is there a bigger story here that I’m ignoring? Humor can often be the vehicle to truth.

Are You Wearing Emotional Spanks?

Donning an emotional “everything is fine” mask in our personal relationships is psychological Spanx, making it difficult for authentic connection to develop.

Spanks. Those ingenious undergarment items that smooth our bumps and bulges has helped many of us feel our best. But there’s an emotional kind of Spanx wearing that tends to occur in our personal relationships: the idea of hiding our authentic selves from a potential or actual partner in an effort to be liked.

It’s one thing to want the illusion of a slimmer physique but when we hold back who we truly are in our personal relationships, we are doing a disservice to ourselves, our partner, and the relationship itself.

*Gena just started dating someone.

“I really like this one. I think there’s real potential. But then I saw him on TikTok, throwing emoji kisses and hearts to another girl. Psychologically, I went down the rabbit hole. But I’m not letting him see that. He thinks I’m all cool with his online flirting emoji-fest.”

It’s a couple of weeks into Gena’s dating “Mr. Real Potential.” Two weeks of seeing his online TikTok flirting, two weeks of keeping her angst inside like a muffin top hidden under Spanx. And just like the physical Spanx, the emotional Lycra needed to eventually come off.

“I found myself getting passive-aggressive with him. I couldn’t take not knowing who these girls were that he was online emoji kissing. So, I asked him, ignoring my head screaming at me that I looked like an idiot.”

That inner voice is fear; it’s our brain’s meaning-well-attempt to protect us. But we aren’t in danger when we are honest. Ironically, removing our emotional Spanx is the best thing you can do for everyone involved. Your relationship can literally breathe better.

A dear friend of mine is a bit of a branding guru (https://www.catheynickell.com). She recently had a speaking engagement where she shared her most popular posts on Instagram:

“It’s typically the ones where I share something about me, something personal and authentic. People are drawn to authenticity.”

Authenticity not only boosts one’s potential popularity on social media; it nourishes our relationships. When we, as Brene Brown ingeniously coined it, “dare greatly,” we are showing up in this life, removing our psychological Spanx to experience genuine intimacy.

Shortly after Gena’s confession, her Mr. Real Potential shared that he appreciated her honesty and assured her that it was just playful texting and that he only dates one person at a time.

Could Gena have experienced Mr. Real Potential giving a different answer, one filled with negativity? Judgement? Disappointment? Anger? Absolutely. To “dare greatly” is to know there are risks and to do it anyway. The greater risk is to keep the emotional Spanx on and live a lie with yourself and your partner.

*Names have been altered to protect the privacy of individuals.

Burying Yourself in Dating

Dating while still in the psychological Diet Coke of Denial can be a precarious endeavor, making it that much harder to unearth the truth.

A dear friend of mine recently got divorced. We are talking, recent as in the ink is still drying as I write this. Eighteen years of marriage, two of living together, two kids, two dogs and a house still needing to be sold.

“It wasn’t mutual,” she tells me each time we get together. “I was happy. When he wanted to go for couple’s counseling, I said sure. He kept saying he wasn’t happy.”

Halfway through our lunches, she’ll pull out her phone and ask me what I think of the men she is meeting that afternoon, that night, the next day, and the day after that one.

Before our waiter heads over with the bill, she will repeat those three words from the start of our lunch, “It wasn’t mutual.” No reintroduction to the topic needed; the pain verbally splattered all over her face and hunched shoulders.

“Why do you think he wanted out?” I ask.

“Probably because my ass could double as a pincushion now,” she laughs.

Her laughter is a forced sound that renders both of us uncomfortable. I let the sound fall between us and land with a thud. We both know her ex found her physically desirable and couldn’t have cared less about her weight.

“You know I made that big financial mistake, but I apologized. Geesh, move on,” she said, flipping through the latest Hinge profiles on her phone.

My friend has alluded to the “big financial mistake” for years now, but I still don’t know what exactly she did wrong that her ex can’t move past. We are close and yet this financial “mistake” remains a mystery only clear to her ex.

Ironically, my friend is a private investment banker. Her career is literally about helping affluent customers make sound fiscal decisions. 

My friend is in the Diet Coke Denial of the most sacred relationship: the one with herself. Deep down, she knows exactly why her ex can’t move past whatever she did or didn’t do fiscally. Deep down, she knows it was wrong to cover up whatever it is that she did. Deep down, she knows her self-degrading humor regarding her derriere reflects her self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Unfortunately, instead of getting real with herself, she buries the truth and the unspoken shame she feels. Instead of facing fears, she fabricates online filtered profiles of herself from 10 years ago, before her weight gain and financial deceit. She writes about the importance of honesty in a relationship and notes she is “looking for something casual.”

“I just want to have fun,” she tells me.

And then:

“It wasn’t mutual. I was happy.”

Until we get real with ourselves, how can we be ready to date? 

I think of the famous Sir Walter Scott quote:

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

My friend, in an effort to protect her already broken heart, is deceiving herself and, by extension, the men she is meeting. It’s a tangled mess only to be cleared up through the inner work she needs to do. Denial is the Chinese finger trap of healing: the more we fight to deny the truth, the harder it is to break free and live the life we are meant to live.

The Only Way Out

Like Alice in Wonderland, the only way out of the mad world of denial is through the looking glass.

Denial is not always the clandestine villain its often portrayed. It can act as some solid protective gear amid danger. The child who is abused or the hostage with a gun to their face likely needs a hefty source of denial to get them through their toxic environment.

But the denial we allow ourselves to retain post a traumatic event can wreak havoc on our daily lives. We might numb the pain with anything from drugs and alcohol to gambling and compulsive buying. There are also the more subtle forms denial takes: the physical pain that sweeps through our bodies, alerting us that we are not listening to the inner teacher residing within each of us.

Avoidance is the child of Denial. We keep busy, psychologically hiding behind to-do lists, appointments, Netflix binges—you name it. It is human nature to avoid the uncomfortable and downright painful. But I’ve learned firsthand, the only way out is through. Those little, seemingly innocuous avoidance behaviors are like spiderwebs, gossamer thin individually, but overwhelmingly powerful as an intricate whole that you can’t untangle yourself from. Avoidance is the spiritual equivalent of those Chinese finger tricks: the more we fight to avoid the pain of our past, the stronger the spiritual and physical hold on us.

According to author and teacher, Byron Katie, when we are bravely willing to examine the terrain of pain, we are also liberating ourselves. She offers four simple yet powerful soul-provoking questions:

“Is it true?”

“Can you absolutely know that it’s true?”

“How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

“Who would you be without that thought?”

When I was twenty-six, my husband died. For years, my denial, not over his death, but over my feelings surrounding his death, were too painful to bear. In Judaism, when someone passes, there is a formalized mourning period known as Shiva. The immediate family of the deceased is not meant to do anything but mourn. Mirrors are covered. Food is brought to the mourning family. There are no distractions from the loss. The Shiva provides a way through the pain.

Unfortunately, I didn’t sit shiva or sit at all with my pain. I returned to work within a week, started dating, dancing, doing anything and everything to keep myself busy, busy, busy. The idea of sitting alone with my thoughts terrified me. My avoidance took the form of a jam-packed schedule, running to the brink of exhaustion, my M.O.

Fast forward to today, and I am a woman who misses the young man who was my sweet and thoughtful husband. It took facing my fear, asking questions like the ones above from the wise Byron Katie to begin healing. I went from avoiding the pain to embracing it and finally, made peace with my beautiful husband.

Our relationships, all of them, are an opportunity for us to know ourselves better. Once I embraced the pain of losing my husband, I was able to embrace myself in a way that rendered me more grounded and comfortable in my skin than before I even knew him.

If there’s something in your life that is keeping you in the Land of Denial and you are ready to make a change, I highly recommend delving into Byron Katie’s four questions: https://thework.com