Any advice on coping with everyday life will eventually use some variation of the phrase “move on.” For example: “This situation is not under your control so it’s time to move on to other things bothering you.” “You’ve confronted the problem and done all you can do. Now the ball is in someone else’s court. It’s time for you to move on.” “This is not a time for you to be ruminating about yesterday. What’s already happened can’t be undone. Time move on and deal with the present.”

The interesting thing is, we all seem to assume we know what is meant by the words “move on,” and that moving on is the best course of action. This assumption, of course, begs the question: “What do you think ‘moving on’ means?”

We asked some folks this question and, not surprisingly, the answers generally revolved around a common idea: “Moving on means putting something behind you; it means realizing that you can’t do anything about something so you should put it out of your life, out of your thoughts, and forget about it.”

In most cases, we disagree with this interpretation of what “moving on” truly means in the context of effective coping. Let’s consider the case of Dorothy, a 35-year old university assistant professor of mathematics. One evening she worked late in her office, 10:30pm, and decided to walk from her building to the nearby parking lot by herself. This practice was discouraged by the university, and all Dorothy had to do was call the switchboard and within 10 minutes she would have an escort. But she was tired and didn’t want to wait those extra minutes.

Dorothy was only 20 feet from her building when an assailant jumped from behind some shrubbery, hit her on the head (rendering her semi-conscious at best), and proceeded to rape her.

For the next 6 months Dorothy dealt with her trauma with the help of a devoted and understanding fiance’, an effective counselor, and trusting, supportive friends and colleagues. Her adjustment to the event was excellent. Her earlier symptoms of PTSD (nightmares, anxiety attacks, fear of strangers, etc.) subsided, and she had returned to her normal routine, although with one exception: she never worked in her office after dark.

When asked how she was doing, Dorothy replied, “Great. I’ve put the trauma behind me. It’s like it never happened. I don’t think about it and I’ve moved on.” Most would say, “Good for you, Dorothy.”

However, we detect a problem in Dorothy’s reaction to her recovery, and it’s shown in her comment, “It’s like it never happened.” Yes, it’s true she is really doing fine, but there’s an element of denial in those words, and denial of the past is not what is meant by “moving on.”

Here’s the problem: If Dorothy has denied in her mind that the event never really happened, she has left herself vulnerable. As one example, note that she never works in her office after dark. Sure, this move may seem wise, but consider that she has allowed the event to compromise her actions and limit her to what she can do after dark. What if there is a departmental meeting after dark in the early evening?  Will she skip it because she has not confronted a painful part of her reality?

Moving on does not mean you cope best when you put an unpleasant event behind you, never again look at it, and reflect, “It’s like it never happened.” You cannot undo or rewrite the past; it happened; it’s real. Following a traumatic event, sometimes that recognition, plus reflection on the past trauma, can help you put current challenges in perspective.

Rather than suppress memories of the trauma and act like it never occurred, a frank and realistic evaluation of the reality of the trauma can encourage Dorothy to be proactive and take some control. For example, she can work late in her office, but call for an escort when she is ready to leave; she can take self-defense classes; she can consider learning how to carry and use a weapon. These actions should not be taken to give her a false sense of security, but to give her feelings of self-empowerment and confidence. Thus “armed,” both physically and psychologically, Dorothy will be more likely to make wise and realistic decisions to help her face the prospect of danger. The past did happen, and recognizing that fact will help Dorothy remain vigilant, proactive, and empowered to take actions to control those things she can.

Putting trauma “behind you as if it never happened,” carries two dangers: First, it makes you vulnerable to self-pity, feeling that the corners of your world should be padded because you suffered the trauma. Second, you become vulnerable to self-blame. Dorothy, for instance, must not let the past dominate her thinking; she must not feel that others should join her pity parade, or moan, “Why didn’t I do things differently?” Such obsessive thinking is dangerous and will interfere with effective coping in the present; both self-pity and self-blame will hinder her proactive efforts to exercise some control.

In this context, “Moving on” means not letting conflict and trauma define you. It means remaining vigilant and being able to recognize the forces responsible for the conflict and trauma so you can deal with those forces as a rational, critical thinking, civilized adult. It means putting the past trauma in a box, wrapping it up with some string, and placing it on a shelf in your mind.

Placed on that shelf, the event can now collect dust in the corner of your mind. However, it is always there, in sight, but situated so it doesn’t dominate your thinking or define you. So, you move on, knowing full well that the event happened, but also knowing that you will not allow it to consume you by monopolizing your physical and psychological life.




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