Maya Angelou gave a slightly different version of her famous quote in reference to her own past: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” This sentiment is key to forgiving ourselves for our mistakes. We are all works in progress.
I used to tell myself that I had no regrets in life because every experience was a lesson. While that’s a nice thought in the abstract, there are of course things I wish I had done differently, words I’d love to take back, and decisions I would revisit if I could. When I look at my life today, I see how my present circumstances are largely the consequence of past choices and unquestioned beliefs. I like my life, and I’m generally happy, but I’m also aware of missed opportunities. While I hope I still have a number of years left on this earth, the possibilities for my life don’t seem quite as endless as they once did. I sometimes wonder what my life would look like if I had studied a different major, lived abroad, moved to a big city after college, pursued a different career path, chosen a different law school, not gotten married right after college, or made better financial decisions.
It’s easy to get pulled into this kind of thinking and start to feel disappointed with the person I used to be, the person who made all those decisions. I try to remind myself that too much dwelling on the past robs us of the present. We can’t fully experience what is happening now if we are reliving what happened years ago.
At the same time, really examining our thought patterns and understanding why we acted as we did can prevent us from making similar errors of judgment in the future. If we want to become our best selves, we must do the deep work of recognizing and deconstructing the self-referential beliefs that subconsciously influence our decisions and behaviors. For me, recognizing these beliefs and how they formed has been crucial to viewing my younger self with compassion rather than criticism.
We tend to automatically accept our beliefs as true, so we often don’t even recognize that they are just beliefs, and we don’t question them. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, ask yourself whether you’ve heard thoughts like these replaying in the audio loop of your mind:
- I’m not smart
- I’m only good at X
- I’d rather stick with what I can do well than fail at something new
- I don’t fit in with those people
- People with money are stuck up and selfish
- People like me can’t do X
- Women/men should be X
- Work is supposed to be difficult and unpleasant
- A person isn’t successful or worthy of respect unless X
Obviously, this is not an exclusive list, and I’m sure you could add some of your own beliefs. These thoughts can become so ingrained that we behave in accordance with them without even noticing or acknowledging what is driving our behavior. Occasionally, new experiences will call our beliefs into question. Do you remember a time when a person complimented you, and the compliment didn’t fit your own self-image? Did you dismiss the compliment, or did some part of you start to think, “Huh–that person sees me as X. I always thought I was Y, but maybe I am X.”
Looking back at my life, I can now see how certain childhood experiences led me to develop some of my self-referential beliefs, and I can see how those beliefs played out in decisions I made. This understanding is helpful in two ways.
First, it helps me to forgive myself, which allows me to release some of my baggage and move forward less burdened. I can think of my younger self empathetically, kindly, recognizing that she was dealing with some difficult circumstances. She hadn’t fully processed her experiences, and she didn’t see herself as the world saw her. She was probably struggling with undiagnosed depression. I can address my younger self as I would address a friend or stranger, with less judgment and more compassion.
Second, this understanding helps me to make better decisions in the present. I examine my immediate reactions and look for their source. I recognize my internal dialogue as just a series of thoughts that are not necessarily true. I gather more information from varying sources, seek different points of view, and try to shift my perspective frequently when preparing to make a decision. Of course, this is all tied to mindfulness.
If you find yourself replaying your past or beating yourself up over your mistakes, please know that you are not stuck. You can break free of that thought cycle, forgive yourself, and put your past to rest. You can learn from it and move forward.
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