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I was talking to a friend recently and she was experiencing a lot of self-criticism and judgement based on her past actions. She was feeling sad and guilty for doing something allegedly “wrong” or “bad”, wishing she had acted differently.
I totally get this, do you? It used to happen to me a LOT. Past things would pop up just to make me cringe at myself, doubt my value as a person and wish I were different. It is popular to say we can learn from our mistakes, but sometimes there is just nothing you can do, because they weren’t actually mistakes, they were just experiences and they probably weren’t as bad as our minds try to tell us.
What to do?
Do you ever want to go back into the past and change your behaviour? Yeah, well, you can’t. Lol! We cannot go back in time and change the way we acted, so what can we do instead?
When I dove deeper with my friend's situation, it turned out she was berating herself for not listening to her gut instincts and deciding to ahead with what other people wanted, expected or what they thought was right. She knew it felt wrong, but went a long with it anyway. Can you relate to this too? I certainly could.
So, two things came up for me. 1. The pressure we feel to be right. That we should know what the right thing to do is BEFORE we do it (with or without the experience). That there is a right way and a wrong way to act and react and 2. When we repress our own instincts to follow societal or cultural expectations, it can be painful (a post for another time, I think).
The problem with right and wrong
The pressure to be right and know what is right comes from the concept of there being a right and a wrong. We are taught early on there is a right way or a right answer. I am slowly rejecting these concepts from my mindset. I no longer agree with this either/or mentality. It doesn’t reflect real life. Things in life are not finite or absolute, they are not opposites, just like truth isn't. They can be very personal. In the example of my friend, what was right for her, was not right for the culture she was living in. The culture expected something different and she went along with it, now regretting it and giving herself a hard time about it.
Do not beat yourself up!
Now, this pains me for many reasons. 1. We are all good inside. 2. It isn’t our fault when we are swayed by our culture, it doesn’t mean we are weak or flawed in any way. It just means we are human. There is never any reason to beat ourselves up for this. Beating ourselves up is never helpful in any way. If we want to do something differently, positive reinforcement is the way to go.
It can be hard to be a human. But we have good hearts and mostly we want what is best for everyone. Our younger selves didn’t know any better, even if now, you think you did know better or “should” have known better. Chances are, you didn’t. You did what felt you had to do at the time, considering all the information and resources available to you. Maybe you have more knowledge, awareness and understanding of the situation now, but at the time you did not. AND THAT IS OK.
We never know beforehand what consequences our actions are going to have. We just cannot know. We have been taught to believe we should know what is right before we act, but that is not how life works. Life is unpredictable, people are unpredictable, we are unpredictable. We can prepare all we like for something, but really, we have no control over how things are going to go. We cannot know how to deal with completely new situations. We can only try it out.
Our nervous systems can be especially unpredictable. Sometimes we freeze when we want to fight, sometimes we get angry when we are scared, there are a whole load of automated systems working to control our actions that we may not be aware of at any given moment.
Show yourself some love
So I would like to encourage you to give yourself some grace, or forgive yourself if you think you need that. Mostly I see no reason to forgive, but you do what is right for you. We grow wiser with every experience, but perfection doesn’t actually exist any more than right or wrong does. We don’t have to be the perfect person, we just have to be. Sometimes we mess up (or think we do) and it feels awful, believe me, I KNOW. This is part of life. Pain is allegedly inevitable, but suffering is optional.
Allow the judgement of yourself as one thing or another just fall away. It won’t serve you or your loved ones or anyone you think you may have “wronged”. When you know you are good inside, and you have a kind heart, then that is enough. When you connect with your heart, maybe you will receive the impulse to act or maybe, there is nothing you need to do but be kind and loving towards yourself.
Turning those thoughts around
Every try is a win. We gain insights and experience and have the chance to reflect. Instead of judging ourselves with harsh criticism and words of “That was wrong! You are bad!” try asking yourself “What worked? What went well? What felt good? How would I like to do it next time?” You may not be able to react how you would like to next time either (see unpredictability above) but paying attention to the more positive aspects of a situation is much more rewarding for the brain and can help us feel better about ourselves. And I WANT you to feel better about yourself. Always. EVERYTHING is easier when we feel good.
We are only human. Sometimes it is hard being a human. Give yourself some grace, it is all trial and error and playful experimentation.