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 []

  • Happy New Years, guys!

  • How do you forgive yourself of wrongs you have committed, if other people don't forgive you? If other people refuse to forgive your mistakes or accept a different version of you…. if your past wrongs are always held over your head, if self-flagellation is expected… then how is it possible to forgive yourself?

    • thesurfmonkey

      I don't think that forgiving oneself and being forgiven by others are always connected. An example of what I mean was this summer a tragic thing in the news where a child died after his aunt forgot to take him out of his carseat and he was in the hot car for several hours. Her whole family, including the child's parents, forgave her and begged the judge to be lenient because it was an accident and they knew how much she loved the child. But she couldn't forgive herself, she refused bail and elected to stay in jail while waiting for a trial or for the DA to decide what to do. Obviously that's a very different example from what you were saying, but I think it shows the disconnect between self-forgiveness and other-forgiveness.

      • Stories like that make me afraid to ever become a parent. I have a ferret and I love the little guy. I take him with me everywhere I can in his pet carrier. But one day, it was the end of summer and I was taking a trip with my friends. We stopped for groceries and I had to leave Wickett in the car, but I forgot to roll the windows down for him. Fortunately it was not a very hot day and he survived, but I felt such panic when I returned to the car and saw that the windows were up. I had some self-forgiveness issues over that one as well, even though he lived and no one else thought it was such a big deal. As for Marty's question, I can't deny that is a tough situation. But if you have already shown remorse and a desire to move on and these people won't let you, you might have to accept that your misery makes them feel better about themselves and so they may never let it go. I know those types of people. They run rampant on my mother's side of the family. I may also be projecting my experiences onto you, but if something similar is the case, you have to ask yourself if you are willing to deny yourself forgiveness for the benefit of people who do not care about your well-being. Personally, I have always refused to suffer for people who would never dedicate anything of themselves to me. Though the people in my life who have expected flawless obedience find me selfish for this, the people who love me stand behind me. It will only be through making a stand for yourself
        that you will find out who those people are.

    • eselle28

      I'm not sure you can forgive yourself if the people close to you expect self-flagellation. That's a really unhealthy dynamic for both parties. At some point, I think you need to make amends as best you can and then move on, either by ending the relationship or by accepting that it will never be quite what you want and creating some emotional distance.

      • Juuuuuulia

        I also think this goes back to the mental trick of acknowledging when you've done everything you can. If there's something the wronged parties want you do DO in order to make amends, they should ask for it? But if you've done all you can, then they can't ask any more from you.

        I don't think they're allowed to make you FEEL bad indefinitely. "I want you to feel as bad as I feel" is manipulative, because if that person isn't working on making themselves feel better, then that gives them license to make you feel bad forever if they're committed to feeling bad forever. So, I guess … you're allowed to feel however you feel and a person trying to make you FEEL bad is being manipulative. And you don't have to DO what they ask once you stop feeling empathetic to the situation.

    • Nic

      I spent 7 years in a relationship with someone who would bring up things that happened a decade ago to constantly keep me apologizing and feeling bad about myself. This is emotional abuse, and it means the other person is not in a healthy place mentally. The best you can do, as eselle28 said, it make a respectful attempt at amends and then get emotional distance. You can explain to the other party you are sorry they are hurt, but that you have made the best apology you are capable of and while you understand if they are unable to forgive you, you are not going to subject yourself to being constantly reminded of your mistake.

      AND ask yourself if you really did anything wrong in the first place. Once I got some perspective and some years between me and that relationship, I saw a lot of what I used to tearfully apologize for weren't mistakes on my part, they were him manipulating me into trying to fit his ideal of me that I couldn't possibly live up to.

  • KMR

    I'd say I'm pretty good at not dwelling on regrets and forgiving myself for past mistakes. But what about when you had a genuinely good relationship that ended for reasons beyond your control? What can you do to help get over the irrational hope of getting that relationship back, when you know with near-certainty that it's not going to happen?

    And how do you avoid falling into the trap of comparing a new relationship to that former one, as if that former relationship were a "gold standard" to judge against? And is that even a bad thing to do? Is it a sign that you haven't let go of the past, or it is simply a self-awareness of what you want in a relationship?

    • LeeEsq

      In contrast, I'm rather horrible at not dwelling on regrets but I think I can help you. Shit happens, if a relationship ended because of things beyond your control than you can put yourself at peace of mind that at least you did not screw up. Try not to think about it too much. Its hard but possible.

    • enail

      You might benefit from going nuclear, cutting off all contact, blocking that person on facebook and so forth; if you get rid of those constant reminders, it'll be easier not to obsess. Try to keep your brain occupied with unrelated things – take up a new hobby, go new places, spend more time with friends.

      In regards to comparing to an old relationship, I'd say you can generalize based on that relationship, but try not to compare specifics, milestones and events. So, you can say "I really need someone who understands I need a lot of space" or "kindness is important to me," but try not to think about "New Partner doesn't like my favourite movie, unlike Ex, who had the same top five movies as me." A new relationship is never going to be the same as the old one in the details.

    • eselle28

      I second the recommendation to cut off contact. Your ex might be a great person, but it's unlikely that he or she is going to be bringing anything positive into your life at this point. Give yourself some time and some space to heal.

      As for comparisons, I think it's good to identify what you liked about the relationship, since it can help you as you look for new people to date. It's also good to remember that your old relationship wasn't perfect. After all, it ended, and I think it's helpful to keep that in mind along with all the many good things. It might be something mundane like, "I don't want to date someone who lives far away," or something painful like, "I don't want to date someone who doesn't want to date me," but there should be something you can add on when you're starting to idealize the past.

    • Nic

      Echoing everyone else, just take stock on what made that relationship so good, and try to find someone who creates similar qualities with you in your relationship. I have these pieces from all my relationships and it has helped me to truly get a clear picture of the type of person I need to be with. I compared my last boyfriend to my first, but only in the sense that I felt our lack of a deep connection was a problem for me because I've had one before. To me, a deep connection and a romantic relationship were synonymous, but I learned that is not the case with everybody.

      I wasn't actually comparing the two side-by-side, but instead saying "hmm, something doesn't feel right here – what is it?" until I realized what it was. That made me realize what I need from a relationship that I never thought about as a requirement before. It may sound silly, but it was a total light-bulb moment for me.

      My second boyfriend compared me to his first girlfriend all the time, in a good way. It helped him realize he needed someone who was independent and self-sufficient, someone who wasn't clingy. It's ok to do, as long as you aren't trying to make someone be a clone of the one you lost.

  • Juuuuuulia

    I don't like the idea that are the *sum* of all of your decisions and actions because that sounds like everything comes out to one net score. So if I help 100 old ladies cross the street, that absolves me for having murdered someone.

    I prefer "linear combination".


  • Telpscorei

    Regarding footnote 1:
    "Ain't that right shithead?!"

    Cyber City Oedo 808

  • Some guy Somewhere

    One particular conundrum (read paradox) I have navigating is the idea that we are all somehow supposed to see ourselves as special, unique, deserving of everything we want in life, while at the same time, are supposed to see ourselves as human, deserving of self-forgiveness for our mistakes and prejudices. We're supposed to tell ourselves how awesome we are (and anyone else who will listen, short of arrogance), at the same time as we're supposed to view ourselves as nor more or less relevant and deserving as others. How is it possible to make the best decisions (for ourselves, for our impact on others and the world) on a regular basis while inhabiting such a paradox?