With much of the work that I do with veterans, it’s like we’re still carrying the same loads that we did when we were in the military. The heavy rucksack, the duffle bag drag, the weight on our shoulders…and our mind, our souls. The burden of these weights can be so great that we come to a standstill and get stuck. They can be so great as to be defeating, crushing; the weight that we carry can be so great that it sometimes kills us.
What is the weight that we carry? It certainly is some of the things I’ve talked about in the past, such as the names and places we’ve been to, or the people we served with. The people we lost. But often, it’s the weight of things from our past, and weight from a future that may never happen. We burden ourselves with things that are not our responsibility, don’t belong to us, and that we can do nothing about. Talk about an exercise in futility…
My life has been full of terrible misfortunes…most of which never happened – Michel de Montaigne
“I know how this turns out; no matter how hard I try, it’s all going to end up in the crapper.” I can’t count how many times I’ve heard variations on that theme. Or, “why bother? Its all going to blow up in my face anyway.” Sometimes, we pull the future towards us and bring it into the present. We create doomsday scenarios that defeat us even before we get onto the playing field. The weight of this future is so heavy, the prospects for success are so slim, that we shouldn’t even try.
If we’re so good at predicting the future, why is it that we often see only catastrophe? The problem with reacting in the present to a potential horrible future is that it will increase our awareness and sensitivity to pain. In a study conducted in 2001, individuals who scored high on a measure for catastrophic thinking anticipated that a ordeal (putting your hand in a bucket of ice water for one minute) would be more painful than those who did not score high in catastrophic thinking. The results showed, however, than the catastrophic thinkers rated their pain even higher than they anticipated. In other words, they thought it would hurt, and it hurt even worse than they thought. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Absolutely. Being weighed down by doomsday scenarios in the future hurts us more in the present AND in the future. Why do it?
“Sooner or later she had to give up the hope for a better past.”― Irvin D. Yalom
We’ve all heard it so often before, that the phrases bounce around in our mind like empty balloons. “No man steps into the same river twice.” “We will never walk the same path again.” The past is the past, and that is incontrovertible truth. Nothing we can do can change what happened twelve years ago, or fifty years ago. And, yet, we are so bogged down by the weight of past failures, past regrets, past mistakes, that we are essentially immobile in the present. We base our opinions on past experience; so if we carry the weight of the negative past, then the prospect of the future will be just as negative.
The past will not be any better or worse than it was. It is simply things that happened in our past. If we put negative meaning to it, however, it’s going to bog us down and make us not even want to get out of bed. It’s going to make us not even try for future success, because past success has been so elusive. Constantly thinking and worrying about the past…rumination…is proven to be associated with negatively biased thinking, poor problem solving skills, and increased negativity, as shown another 2001 study. So if we’re weighed down by the past, and are poking at it like a bruise that never fades, then we’re more likely to look at the future catastrophically as well.
Offload the Weight
When we were in the military, and we got done with the ruck march, we didn’t walk around with the weight for the rest of the day. Did we say, “No thanks, Corporal, I think I’ll just keep carrying it”? Heck no! We dropped that crap as soon as we possibly could. And felt relief after doing it, too. So why do we do it with our mental and emotional weight? Why do we still stuff our pockets with failure? Why do we load regrets onto our back, put on catastrophe glasses to look at the future? Is it fun, enjoyable? Of course not. The thing is, we can change it. We can change our outlook through deliberate effort. We first have to realize that this is what we’re doing. Then we have to want to change, and believe we have the ability to change.
Only then can we offload the weight and get on with our day.
The Head Space and Timing Blog is supported by the Colorado Veterans Health and Wellness Agency, a 501(c)3 Nonprofit in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The goal of the CVHWA is to provide military culturally competent mental health counseling to veterans and their spouses, regardless of characterization of discharge, time of service, or era of service. Our vision is to assist veterans to identify and remove barriers to their mental, physical, emotional, and behavioral wellness. For questions or inquiries, contact us!