Playing martyr to your past?

Learn what your past has to teach and then bid it adieu


All of us remember the quote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” by George Santayana, Life of Reason, Reason in Common Sense, 1905.

I’d like to suggest that the meaning of this quote is not obvious. There are certainly tons of people who won’t let go of the past.

These people are obsessed, focussing solely on regret, disappointment, and heartache. Their minds turn backward, and rehash old data—and there they sit, stuck in the mess.

One client’s relationship ended after three years. All she talks about is her pain over the failure of the relationship. She endlessly remembers how wonderful he was, then all the bad things that happened—especially how badly she acted.

She says she doesn’t want to repeat the pain, so she stops dating and has one night stands, and then feels guilty. Then she says she does want a relationship, but continues to pick up guys who have commitment issues, who leave the next day, or week, or month. And she thinks she’s being used.

So, she took up knitting. She sighs, a lot. Complains bitterly. Repeats, “I guess I’m just stuck in my ways.” The odd part is there’s a big part of her that gets off on being a martyr.

Stop playing the martyr

All of us do the things we do because we derive pleasure from them. This begins to explain why people live in the past, or better put, live in their minds, rehashing their stories of the past. They derive pleasure from their self-created pain.

Indeed, many of my clients are addicted to their pain.

It’s just as if they were taking drugs—they keep doing the same damaging stuff, over and over. All that changes is the intensity of the misery-story they tell. “It was the worst, he was the cruelest, I was stupid…” and on and on.

Before I unpack the above quote, let me remind you: nothing about the stories you tell yourself about your past are true.

I know. You’d argue with me. “Of course my stories are true! I was there! I saw/heard/felt exactly what I was describing!” Well, not so.

If you have a sibling, ask them to remember a ‘big’ event. Notice what happens when you compare stories.

Example: One client recalled playing with his sister and brother when he was eight years old. They set a fire on the driveway, and thinking it was getting out of control, my client doused it with what he thought was water. It was kerosene. His sister got burnt.

Here’s the interesting part: 50 years later, the three of them are talking about the event—and each of them thought they had started the fire and poured the kerosene! Think about it. This was a huge, traumatic event, and for 50 years, there was no agreement—each of them wallowed in the pain and guilt.

I said, “Isn’t that interesting, each of you blaming yourself?”

He, annoyed, said, “Yeah, but my version is the right one. How do I get them to blame me?”

Our stories of the past are not clean. They are fuelled by our expectations, projections, and personalities. If I assume that I am a victim, for example, my memories will be filled with illustrations backing my belief. So, what good is the past [and what about that quote?]

Our memories are simply a vast collection of data chunks. We remember in order to learn from the past. The quote might be better put:

“Those who do not learn from the past,
and change their behaviour, are condemned
to repeat it and get the same results.”

The first client, mentioned above, wanted to spend hours telling me how sad and forlorn and alone she was. I broke in and invited her to let me know one thing she did that got her lousy results, and one thing her ex did, ditto.

She replied, “When we started to argue, he’d get quiet and leave the apartment. Or, I’d get up and go to the bedroom and curl up in a ball. We wouldn’t talk for a day or two, then make up, but never talk about the fight.”

There, in the data, was something she can learn to do differently.

I encouraged her to learn to ‘fight fair’ and to communicate. To practise with her girlfriends, to go out on fun dates, for practising the communication part.

As we worked together, if I noticed that she was shutting down and not talking, I’d ask her to choose to ‘come out of her bedroom and talk to me.’

That metaphor worked for her. When she wants to curl up and shut down, she imagines walking out of the bedroom and talking. And then she talks.

Nothing in our lives changes unless we change it, and that includes what we do in our heads.

Here are a couple of ideas to help you to escape from your mental games—from clinging to the past.


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Wayne Allen
A retired psychotherapist, and the author of 5 books, Wayne's approach to writing, life, and living comes from his love of Zen. He teaches living in the now, and taking full responsibility for "how everything goes." Wayne emphasizes wholeness, peace, and clarity of thought. His books, resources and other writings are available at


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