Leaving The Past Behind

So it’s come to this…

(I’ve always wanted to say that)

The dawn of a new year approaches, full of potential and possibility… and the chance to make a better future for ourselves.

Not to mention a truly epic hangover...

Not to mention a truly epic hangover…

But having just gotten done telling you about the problems with making the wrong promises and resolutions for the new year, I want to talk about the past.

It seems only appropriate that while we’re focusing on where we’re planning on going, that we take a moment to stop and take a long look at where we’ve been. For many of us, the past is just that – it’s past. But for far too many… the past is always with us, keeping old wounds open, old regrets fresh and pain from long ago at the forefront of our minds.

The past can be a great utility… or it can be an anchor, holding us down. It’s all too tempting to let the memory of mistakes and failures holding us back from who we could be, to keep us chained to the ground instead of soaring through the heavens.

So today, I want you to learn to let go of the past. It’s time to learn how to fly.

There’s No Changing The Past

One of the hardest lessons that we all have to learn is to let go. We all have regrets – choices we wish we hadn’t made, mistakes that we can’t seem to escape from, the echo of wounds that we just can’t seem to stop poking and prodding at. The difference though is whether we choose to hold onto them or learning to let them go.

It’s human nature to want to hold on; we play “what-if” with our memories, trying to picture just how things would be if we had only done things differently and castigating ourselves for things we couldn’t have known.

More importantly, though: we can’t change what has happened.

Even now, it’s something I wrestle with.

This Christmas, I watched as my cat, my dearest friend of the last 12 years lost his battle with a year long mysterious illness that we were never able to treat effectively. And all I can think is “I should have caught it earlier. I should have recognized the signs that something was wrong. Maybe I could have saved him. Maybe we would have had more time.”

Maybe. Maybe it would have made a difference. Or maybe it wouldn’t have. There’s no way to know.

And to be perfectly honest, by holding onto that question – that constant “what if” – I’m punishing myself. Poking and prodding at a wound is just a way of saying “you deserve to hurt like this because you should have made a different decision.”

It is, in the scheme of things, not a monumental event. It’s not the biggest regret in my life or the worst thing I’ve done, and I don’t intend to elevate it. But it’s the freshest and the one that hurts the most right now… and at this moment, it’s the one I have the hardest time letting go of.

I know you have similar regrets. They may be from events so large and momentous that it shook your entire world to it’s core. They may be so small and petty that it seems silly that they should cause so much pain when others have things much. But that pain is real, and it’s all the more important because it’s yours. 

But we have to ask ourselves: What good does it do? How does holding on to this regret help us? Where is the profit to constantly picking at this wound, to keep deliberately inflicting the pain on ourselves by “what-if-ing” ourselves and worrying at the memory like a dog with a bone?

It’s in the past. It’s photons receding at light speed. There is no way of changing what has happened, no matter how much we want to, or how many times we replay the moments in our minds. By living in the past we are robbing ourselves of the chance to learn from it and make a difference for the future.

So it’s time to accept that it happened.

To Err Is Human. To Really Fuck Up Requires a Computer1 .

Here’s the hard part: accepting that we’re all going to fuck things up some time. Everybody has done things that they regret so much that we would give anything for some way to go back and fix things.

"Hullo. Fancy another go-round?"

“Hullo. Fancy another go-round?”

The problem – in as much as that there is a problem – is that we’re all imperfect, flawed creatures. We’re all selfish and self-involved. We all have impulses that sometimes we can’t resist, make decisions that we know are bad, take risks that we know are almost certain to go wrong. We also make choices with the best of intentions only to have everything blow up in our faces. We can’t predict the future. We can’t control for all the variables or forsee all the potential consequences of our actions.

And even if we could – the universe is still chaos and sometimes events come down simply to random chance. Even something as small as a missed phone call can have seemingly catastrophic results.

We’re human, and that means that flaws and limitations are built in to the condition. There is no way to avoid making mistakes, to having things go badly and even the noblest, most well-crafted plans can and will have repercussions that nobody could foresee.

To hold on to past regrets means to punish yourself for not being perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has regrets. We have to accept that sometimes shit happens and that’s to be expected. It’s not about trying to avoid mistakes and regrets altogether, it’s about what we do when we have them.

The Past Is To Be Learned From

Once we’ve accepted that the past is the past, the question then becomes “So what do we do about those mistakes?”

And the answer is: “We learn from them.”

As unhelpful as the cliche may be, every mistake is a lesson to be learned and absorbed… and frankly sometimes they’re necessary. More often than not, the only way we learn not to put our hand on the stove is to get burned.

One of the most common regrets – especially for my readership – come from our relationships… and yet they can be the most valuable lessons we can find. I’ve had many, many bad relationships in my time. I’ve been in toxic relationships that left me wrecked emotionally and nearly ruined friendships. I’ve had relationships that I thought were perfect fall apart around me and made me feel so worthless that I wanted to die. I’ve treated people who cared about me horribly because I couldn’t see past my own selfish desires.

“Just what I needed. Another learning experience.”

And yet, I can’t say I would trade them all in because, frankly, if it weren’t for those experiences – as horrible as many of them were – I would never have learned how to be a better person. Sure, that toxic relationship made things hellish for me and many of my friends, but it also taught me exactly what I will and won’t put up with in a relationship and how to recognize the warning signs. It’s only in retrospect that I can see how insecure I was and that my “perfect” relationship was built on equal parts self-delusion and trying to date the fantasy I built up in my head rather than deal with the actual person who had a very different view of things than I did.

I’ve learned to trust my instincts, to be able to recognize that behavior I was indulging in was coercive and wrong, what true confidence looks like and how to confront and resolve my emotional and sexual issues… all because of the mistakes I’ve made and the relationships I’ve had that went badly.

Yeah, there was a lot of pain, anger and heartbreak involved. But it was all necessary. 

Every mistake is something to learn from, even if it’s only to make sure you don’t fuck up the same way again.

Practice (Self) Forgiveness

I asked you earlier: What good does it do to keep holding on to those old pains, failures, insults and mistakes? How does constantly punishing yourself help?

Have you got an answer?

Trick question. It doesn’t. In fact, in many cases, holding on to old regrets is a form of self-indulgent behavior. It becomes an act of self-flagellation, showing how sorry we are for our sins by forcing ourselves to suffer. In a very real way, by keeping the pain present we’re using it as a way to say “Look at how special I am because of how much I suffer!”

Sometimes it’s an unwillingness to forgive others for their crimes against us. The hurt and betrayal is so great that we refuse to let go.

And still other times, it’s an unwillingness to forgive ourselves. By holding on to that old pain, we’re punishing ourselves for the sin of being human. Even when everybody else around us may have forgiven us, we can’t forgive ourselves because we were supposed to be better somehow.

But it’s the holding on to that pain that constricts us and binds us and keeps us from connecting with others. We hold on to those old insults and find ourselves unable to trust others; we’re too busy watching for the knife in the back to accept that maybe things are different now. We are so consumed with guilt and remorse that we can’t stand to face the people we’ve wronged and we let relationships that might have once been important to us whither and die rather than to take responsibility.

And we continue to hurt ourselves deliberately because we can’t seem to accept that we’re simply human.

Forgiveness can be one of the most powerful and liberating moments in our lives. And yet, seeking it – or giving it –  can be one of the most difficult things we can do.

But sometimes it’s the only thing that can free us from our past. Allow yourself to forgive those who’ve wronged you. Seek forgiveness from the people you’ve hurt wherever you can (and without causing more pain in the process).

And be willing to forgive yourself.

The Past Is Merely Prologue

You are the sum of all of your decisions and actions – the good and the bad. Everything you have done, every choice you have made, every reaction you’ve had to random chance has lead you to this moment, right here, right now. It’s in this moment that you decide what it all means.

I’ve had a lot of regrets in my life. I’ve had relationships go badly. I’ve hurt people – sometimes carelessly, sometimes deliberately. I spent a long time as a scummy person who did some very sleazy things that I cringe to think about. But when taken in total, I have to admit: it’s all lead me to who I am today and I’m pretty damn satisfied with that.

Many of you may not like where your decisions have brought you… and that’s fine. Because now that you’re here, you have the opportunity to let go of the past that’s holding you back and give up those regrets that slow you down. Everything that’s come before is merely the preparation for the glorious future you have ahead of you. You can let it hold you down or you can learn from it, use it and let it propel you to the place where you want to be.  

And if I can indulge in a little cheese, I want to leave you with one of my favorite inspirational songs to bring you into the new year.

Happy 2013 everyone. Let’s make it a great one.

I’m going to be on vacation until January 11th. Until I get back, there won’t be any new articles. Instead, I’ll be clearing some of the backlog of questions for Ask Dr. NerdLove. If you’ve got a question or a relationship issue you want answered, now’s a good time to drop me a line.


  1. Two points to anyone who gets that reference []