How To: Think About The Past Without Beating Yourself Up

I have the tendency to dwell on the past. While most of my time is spent looking forward and preparing for the next steps in the many areas of my life, or simply enjoying the present moment, I spend so much mental energy on the past.

My brain runs in circles over the same tracks, analyzing why I am where I am, the decisions that I have made, what from my past made me make those decisions, how I could have acted differently, how things would be if I had made different decisions. 

I believe whole-heartedly that I am where I was meant to be, and that I like who I have become throughout the journey. And yet, I still wonder. 

This pattern of overthinking has gotten stronger and louder in the quiet and stillness of quarantine. I am sure that I am not the only person experiencing something similar. 

When I am analyzing past events, I see where I could have been wrong about a person’s intentions. I see where I could have handled things better. I see where I could have taken more time, even if the outcome would have been the same. I see my weaknesses, where I have patterns of actions. 

I know that gaining an understanding of yourself and your patterns is not an inherently bad thing.

But when overanalysis is making it difficult to plan for the future and to accept happiness in the present, it is overstepping its purpose and is no longer serving you.

It is your life. There are myriad choices and paths that it could take. Agonizing over a fork in the trail you passed miles back does not equal a life well lived. There comes a point where you have learnt enough. To put it bluntly: move on! 

There are many ways to move on, however what I have found works best for me is to choose what thoughts to believe. Let me explain. 

Your brain is constantly producing thoughts. Most of these thoughts are subconscious. They are things you think everyday- patterns and repetitions, so much so that you’re probably unaware that these thoughts are happening. If your brain is a computer, these thoughts are like the software that your brain is running. 

You also have conscious thought where you are focusing on something, say, analyzing a past situation. This could be considered user input in the computer metaphor.

The hardware that you use for this analysis is your brain. The brain was developed in order to keep you alive. That is one reason why it devotes so much energy to analyzing the past– it wants to increase the odds of surviving next time. Your brain is churning out all the angles of a situation. Some of these angles simply are not true. A lot of the time, it’s impossible to know which answer is true and which is false, so you are forced to act as if they could all be true.

Here’s how I break it down. 

Ways to think about a past situation: 

  1. I was right, I did the right thing and I handled things as well as I could.
  2. I was right, but I handled the situation wrong and made things/feelings messier than they had to be. 
  3. I was wrong, I did a thing that ultimately hurt me, and will not get another chance again. 
  4. I was wrong, I ultimately hurt myself, but I can get another chance, if I choose to try.

All of these perspectives can be right, all at the same time. This is a real-life multiple universe/multiple realities paradox. You can definitely have a situation where all of these perspectives are true. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably found yourself rotating through all of these perspectives. 

Though there is growth and maturity in seeing other sides to each story, that does not make it easy to move on, stop wasting your emotional bandwidth, stop spending your mental energy and stop beating yourself up. 

You can change this.

Consider the following:

When all the answers are true, which answer best serves me? 

Which answer gives me the strength to press play and restart my life? 

Which answer best suits my goals in life? 

Which answer best suits my values? 

Which answer respects myself as an individual? 

Which answer helps me grow and evolve instead of remaining stuck? 

It may sound like these questions are only revolving around you, and they are. You are your longest companion. You were with yourself from the day you were born and you will be until death. It is important to think about others and attempt to do no harm. However, you have to live with yourself. 

If your parents judge who you date, great news: they don’t have to live with him/her. 

If people on the internet judge your hobbies, great news: they don’t have to take up knitting with you. 

If friends judge you for not drinking alcohol when you go out with them, great news: you’re not stopping them from taking shots and getting wasted. 

If your in-laws are upset that you and your partner chose to elope, great news: they hopefully got to make their wedding day exactly how they wanted to remember it for the rest of their lives. Now, you’re doing the same. 

No one but you gets to live your life. So, stop making decisions because of what other people will think. 

Yes, get clear. Yes, spend thoughtful time on this.

But once you decide– stick with it. When your mind starts trekking those familiar ruts and running through the available conclusions, remind yourself that you already chose what to believe.

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