some thoughts about regret and trying to erase the past.
Image by: Victoria Carelli
I’ve always been eager to fit in.
Being mixed race where I first grew up resulted in a lot of bullying, which led to believing from a young age that being different was a terrible thing, and that life would be easier if I could stand out less and be more like everyone else.
I carried that mentality throughout my formative years – modifying my personality constantly to better adapt to the people around me.
The need to be liked and accepted became the driving force of my character.
This resulted in an under-developed sense of identity, but also an extremely unhealthy relationship with the past.
Trying to escape the past
Constantly re-inventing yourself involves a kind of mental burial of the old self in order to make room for the new.
Every time a significant change in my life occurred – a new friendship group, a break up, a change of address, a different job etc. – I’d instinctively begin suppressing the old memories.
Even on social media, deleting old pictures and starting new accounts were seasonal habits.
It seemed far more natural to cut ties to the past than to try and cultivate a healthy relationship with it, far easier to dismiss former events as mistakes than to embrace them as neutral experiences to learn from.
But the past isn’t something that can just be erased.
Our brains are constantly updating and reshaping based on our experiences.
They are wired to absorb everything to help us better understand the world for survival. If I put my hand on a hot stove and it burns my hand, my brain remembers that information to stop me from doing it again – this is the purpose of memory – to learn.
“Each and every sensory experience we have triggers changes in the molecules of our neurons, reshaping the way they connect to one another.“
The past quite literally shapes who we are.
I am a living manifestation of my past and there’s no escaping it – and attempting to can cause those memories to manifest themselves in other harmful ways, such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorders etc.
Dealing with regret
Often we want to forget certain memories due to some form of regret.
When we regretfully dwell on the past those memories will give us grief, and the brain’s natural defense (as time travel isn’t a thing yet) is to bury them from conscious memory to make us feel better.
It’s natural to want to immediately abandon the memories we’re not fond of, but we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we do.
studies have shown that around 90% of us have a major regret.
When we live in regret – constantly re-playing the moments over again and again, obsessing over all the alternative outcomes – we often try to bring back the same decision that we made in the past with our current circumstances, beating ourselves up for not making better choices.
But all we can do in ANY given moment is make decisions based on who we are in that moment.
All we can be in the present moment is our present-selves, not our future-selves.
It’s only in making those decisions and living out the results that we can gain the insight that allows us to regret – and it’s also that insight that enables us to learn and grow.
Society doesn't help
Sometimes external judgment and scrutiny can hinder growth.
Society has a tendency to amplify our regrets, making them harder to overcome.
We can be quick to judge and slow to forgive others – particularly public figures, celebrities and people we don’t actually know.
It’s easy to dehumanize somebody we don’t interact with, viewing them as a mere summary of good or bad actions, rather than as another human on a journey.
Constantly reminding each other of our past mistakes doesn’t help us move forward – what does help is grace, empathy and forgiveness.
I believe we’d all be better off encouraging each other to cultivate healthy relationships with our past, and giving each other the space to do so.
It’s human nature to make mistakes, and it’s human nature to learn from them.
When looking back through history at humanity’s barbaric treatment of life, primitive standards of morality and destructive cultural behaviors, it’s natural to wonder how we could ever have been so ignorant – but our elevated perspective was born out of that history.
And years from now we’ll be looking back at 2018 with even greater awareness.
Celebrate the past
So we should cut ourselves a little slack.
We shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes – failure in life is inevitable.
J.K Rowling said, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously you might as well not have lived at all. In which case you have failed by default.”
We can either bury the memories and let history repeat itself, or we utilize the insight, learn from our mistakes and try to make something good.
The past is something to be embraced, to gain wisdom from and to give us a story we can draw identity from, not something to be erased from existence (it didn’t look so great in George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’).
Viewing the past as just a timeline of right and wrong decisions is missing the point entirely.
The beauty of life is in the journey, not the destination.
Let’s celebrate our past, acknowledge how it’s shaped us and try to be as authentic as possible TODAY.