Updated: Apr 16, 2020
Have you ever thought about how everything would be so much better if xyz didn’t happen?
If you hadn’t chosen the boring career path, how much more exciting would your life be now? If you had traveled the world and dared to dream higher when you were younger, how much more fulfilled would you feel right now?
We’re all so much wiser after something has happened and we so badly wish that we could go back and change it. As we’re in the midst of contemplating, we might be missing out on opportunities that come our way and keep making mistakes, which we will dwell on later.
Sometimes dwelling on the past gets so bad that it totally consumes us. We spend our days wishing that we could change it all, thinking out different choices that we could have made but didn’t.
The truth is that, (un)fortunately, there’s no time machine invented yet, so we’ve only got now.
Instead of becoming bitter about our missed chances and mistakes we’ve made along the way, we can actually learn how to enjoy our lives as they are.
Here are my steps on how to stop contemplating about the past and become wiser for the future:
1. Realize that lots of other, possibly worse outcomes could have also happened.
Recently I had a conversation with a friend, who was unhappy about her choice of university degree as he had been finding it very tough, unmotivating and uninteresting. She was contemplating about how much happier she would have been now if she had initially taken a different path.
But her life could have also gone another way. If she had started working right after having finished high school, she may have gotten too comfortable at the job and not confronted herself to reach her true potential and learn about what she really likes, the way she is doing now.
Or maybe she would have chosen a degree in something more exciting, but studying for exams would have made it into a chore. In that case, she could have totally lost her interest and passion in the topic.
While these kinds of scenarios are just as much speculation as the others, I just want to highlight the fact that if something had gone differently, it may not necessarily have turned out to be great. There are other, possibly worse, endless possibilities that could have occurred, that we don’t think about.
And we'll never know them either, since things have already happened the way they did.
2. Learn from your experience.
Mistakes will keep happening whether we like it or not. We all do them and it’s one of the most powerful ways to learn things, since we remember it all so much better than, for example, having read or heard something (1).
So, instead of beating yourself up about something that’s already happened, take a few deep breaths and remember the event. Try to observe the situation as if you were watching it from aside.
Observe what happened. What went wrong and where? How did you feel about it?
Research shows that understanding how you felt about the situation makes you more motivated to not make the same mistake again (2). So identifying your feelings is very important, but try to not get drawn into them while you observe the past situation.
Now comes the key part: try to think about what you’ve learned from the experience. What would you change if the same exact thing happened again and why? What is it that makes you a little bit wiser this time?
Make sure to keep this learning in your memory, even write it down if you think you might remember it better that way. Bring out this wisdom, if you happen to find yourself in the same situation in the future.
3. Let it go, or take action.
It won’t help to keep thinking in the ‘what if’, or ‘if only’ terms, since you can’t change what has already happened.
So instead, either admit that you’ve made a mistake and take this experience with you for the future, if you find yourself in a similar situation again and move on. Or, if you can do anything about the situation now, do it.
Take action now and address the situation you are in so that your future self won’t have to regret the past again.
For example, if you feel bad about possibly having chosen the wrong career path, try to find a way to go towards the one you would rather like to aspire. Start with baby steps - read about it, or try starting a small side hustle in that direction. Or try to take up some projects at your work that are more related to your interests, working your way towards your dream. Or if you’re feeling very motivated, quit your job and enroll yourself in a totally new degree.
In conclusion, realizing that your dream scenario might have not even happened despite you having chosen another path is a great first step to stop dwelling on your past.
Next, it is important to know that we learn best by making mistakes, especially if we identify strong feelings about the situation, in which case our motivation to change something for next time gets stronger.
Finally, take your learnings from the mistake and either let it go, or take action and do something about it now, so that you won’t have to dwell on your past later on.
I am very interested to hear your opinion and tips on what you'd like to read about in this blog, so you are more than welcome to leave a comment here, or contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Laura | MSc in Medical Science, Certified Mindfulness Life Coach
1. Andrée-Ann Cyr, Nicole D. Anderson. Learning from your mistakes: does it matter if you’re out in left foot, I mean field?Memory, 2018; 1 DOI: 10.1080/09658211.2018.1464189
2. Noelle Nelson, Selin A. Malkoc, Baba Shiv. Emotions Know Best: The Advantage of Emotional versus Cognitive Responses to Failure. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2017; DOI: 10.1002/bdm.2042