I’ve developed a habit of going back. I’ve returned to cities I used to live in, companies I used to work for, and to every person I’ve ever loved.
Sometimes I go back because I want more of a good thing. More often I go back because after I move or end or quit something, I see more value in it than I did at the time, and I decide it’s worth trying that thing again.
Going back isn’t easy; I’ve had more failures than successes. But when my motivations are pure and the situation is right, it has been worth the effort.
Here’s what I’ve learned, through trial and (lots of) error, about going back.
Don’t go back out of fear.
Sometimes I’ve gone back to things because I think, what if that’s as good as it gets? When faced with an unknown future, the familiar past with its predictable downsides starts to look pretty good. I’m even more likely to go back right after I’ve tried something new and it hasn’t worked out. I pick the devil I know because the devil I don’t could be worse.
As a rule, it’s probably better to say it’s still the devil, and keep moving forward. Life keeps reminding me that the world is large and full of potential if we are only brave enough to get out there.
Don’t go back because you have something to prove.
Sometimes I go back because I want a do-over. I think, I didn’t make the most of that opportunity, or, the way I acted isn’t really who I am. So I go back to prove it.
Often, my motivation has been less about righting a wrong and more about not liking the way I may have been perceived by others. I try to recreate the situation so I can act differently and show that “the real me” is great, and my misstep was an anomaly. Or I go back and keep trying at jobs or relationships because I’m not a quitter and my ego needs everyone to know that.
Don’t go back to avoid pain.
I’m with the Buddha when he said that the default human condition is to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In the past I’ve gone back to people or places because the pain of being without feels worse than the pain that made me leave in the first place.
This has generally been a bad idea, based on inaccurate emotional data. Fresh pain hurts more than pain that has mellowed with time, so my mind does a biased, lesser-of-the-evils exercise that leads me back to things that should have stayed in the past. When the pain of loss is removed, if nothing else has changed about whatever I went back to, the scales usually shift again and it starts to feel like a mistake pretty quickly.
Don’t go back because you want things to be the way they used to be.
The thing or the person may look the same on the surface, but time will have changed it, and time will have changed you. You can’t see or start something again for the first time. Clean slates are rare. Baggage piles up. If you go back, be prepared for something familiar, but with some surprises and legacies that need working out.
So, four good reasons not to return to something you left or gave up. But when should you go back?
When either you have changed, or the something has changed.
It can’t be just any change; it has to be something that addresses the area(s) that made you walk away in the first place. If you left a job because you didn’t get along with your manager and she gets fired, it might be the right time to go back. Or if you ended a relationship because he wanted kids and you didn’t, and you’ve decided that you’re a breeder after all, go back.
Before you take the plunge, make sure you really look objectively at yourself and the situation because it’s human nature to stack the cards in favour of the past. Familiarity breeds attachment, so the known always scores higher than the unknown, just on that basis. And when emotions are involved, we tend to over-remember the good and forget the bad. Rose coloured glasses are nice for watching reruns of your personal history but they are not a reliable source of information for big decisions.
As a general principle, I try to minimize do-overs: going in circles is more work than travelling in a straight line. But I don’t agree with the cynics who say that going back is always a dead end road.