On multiple occasions, I’ve heard people say something along the lines of “I don’t have any regrets. It all just made me who I am today.”
To which my imaginary response is always “Good for you, but that doesn’t really help me much.” It’s awesome if you have achieved perfect self love and you are really happy with where you are today and who you are.
Guess what guys? I’m not there. I’m not perfectly happy with where I am today. And many things I struggle with today are a direct result of the choices I have made in the past. So hell yeah, I have some regrets.
But at the same time… No matter how terribly you have screwed up in the past, dwelling in your mistakes forever and ever is not going to get you closer to where you want to be. So how exactly do you move on? How do you let go of the past?
In this post, I’m sharing the three steps that have worked for me when I’ve stumbled, but needed to pick myself back up.
1. Mourn Your Loss
It might be tempting to try to find the silver lining and spin your mistakes into a positive. But my experience has been that in order to really let go of feelings, you need to fully feel them first. If you keep trying to sugar-coat them or suppress them, they will just keep on hanging on around the edges of your consciousness trying with all their might to get your attention, circling like vultures around dead prey.
So instead of fighting your feelings, give in to them. Address them. Give them your full attention. Let yourself dwell.
Inside your mind, in writing, or in conversation – whatever works for you best – acknowledge your mistake and how sad you feel about it. Acknowledge what you lost as a result and let yourself have a good cry or two or three over it.
My biggest regret in life has been my career. I picked the wrong major in college and conveniently realized it right around the time I graduated with a master’s degree. For a looong time, like more than a decade, I tried to “make the best of it” working in a field that wasn’t quite right for me doing tasks that weren’t quite right. It’s not like I was totally miserable the whole time, but the nagging feeling was always there, at regular intervals popping up to the surface in the form of a major melt-down. (More like a toddler-style temper tantrum, but I’ll call it a melt-down since I’m supposed to be a grown-up. 😉 )
Until I finally fully gave in and acknowledged that I had royally fucked this one up. I acknowledged that I had made a terrible mistake. I deeply regretted not making a different choice when I picked a major. I deeply regretted not changing course sooner when I first realized my mistake.
When I finally let myself, I spent a long time crying over the years of my life wasted on work that wasn’t meaningful to me. The years that I could have been finding my way on the path that I now know is right for me.
But you know what? Eventually all that crying did come to an end. The tears dried up. I had fully mourned my loss and those feelings of deep regret don’t live inside me anymore.
2. Forgive Yourself
To forget about the past, to leave it behind, you also need to be able to forgive yourself. For me at least, this step can take a long time. It’s not a single event, but a war of many battles.
It’s a war between your inner critic – the perfectionist voice in your head that berates and condemns – and the kind and loving person you want to be.
Whenever the inner critic gears up for battle, here’s what the kind voice needs to say:
You did the best you could at the time. If you had known better, you would have done better. If you had been capable of doing better, you would have done better. You didn’t have all the knowledge and wisdom and maturity and strength and emotional intelligence and self awareness then that you have now. You did the best you could with what you had.
Don’t compare yourself to others. This is your unique journey alone. The starting point for one person’s journey is never the same as another person’s. You were born with your unique combination of personality traits and characteristics. You were born into your unique family situation. The gifts you have been given and the obstacles you have climbed over along the way are unique to you. Your situation is never the same as another person’s. Where you are on your journey can never be compared to where someone else is on theirs, because your starting line was not the same.
In my life, the kind side eventually won the war against my inner critic. I did my best in my teens and twenties, but I didn’t know everything I know now. I was making big decisions all on my own, with virtually no guidance or support from anyone. How could I have known my purpose in helping others, when I didn’t even know how to help myself yet? How could I have known my place would be on the internet, when the internet hadn’t even been invented yet? (I’m not making this up, guys. I was already in college when someone told me about a new invention called the World Wide Web. 😉 )
To this day, I wish I had gotten into something more suitable for me earlier on, but I know why I didn’t and I forgive myself.
3. Focus on Changing The Future
In the end, letting your past go boils down to this lovely cliche: The past is past. There’s nothing you can do to change it.
But there is a whole lot you can do about the future.
I’m done being a perfectionist (topic for another post!) and I know there will be more mistakes that I will regret in my future. But regret is not a fun feeling, and I do my best with where I am today to make choices I won’t regret in the future.
So my advice to you my friend is to turn your gaze ahead.
What lesson did you learn from your mistake?
What do you know now that you didn’t know then?
And now that you know better, what will you do better?
I have my career regrets, but I can tell you this: Five years from now, I will not be regretting the career choices I made today.
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