Rethink Your Past: 5 Tips for Seeing Old Mistakes in a New Light

Tom Faddegon
February 20, 2024
women pondering deep in thought

“It is part of human nature for a person to judge his actions in the past and either to accept the mistakes he made or to feel he did the best he could at the time.” - Nanette V. Hucknall, Higher Self Yoga: A Practical Teaching

Our brains have a pesky habit of flashing back to moments we’d rather forget. From embarrassing social faux pas and unintentionally rude comments to major life decisions that ended up sending us down the wrong path, we all have a catalog of moments we torment ourselves over.    

Reflecting on these memories will often cause you to relive them, and it may feel easier to just push these memories away. But if we never come to terms with these memories of our mistakes, they’ll continue to return no matter how many times we tell ourselves not to think about them. Even worse, we’ll never learn to see them for what they really are: stepping stones on the path to the person we are today.

The next time you find yourself struggling with a bad memory from your past, try these five approaches to help you process it, learn from it, and ultimately, let it go.

1. Use it as a learning experience and a source of motivation to be your best self.

“See life as a series of events that shape who you are; but know that you are still in charge of making those events positive even when they appear negative at first.” - Nanette V. Hucknall, Higher Self Yoga: A Practical Teaching

In the 2006 Winter Olympics, American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis was on track for a gold medal in the final run of Women’s Snowboard Cross until she decided to show off with a trick as she went over the last jump. Tragically, she fell and was forced to settle for silver, immediately becoming the world’s most famous example of the dangers of hubris. This single bad decision undid years of hard work, and could easily have sent her into a tailspin of regret. Instead, she embraced this bad decision as part of her story and used it as motivation. She postponed ending her career after that Olympics like she had planned, and she continued dominating the sport for another whole decade until she finally won the elusive gold medal at her final Olympics in 2022, a Hollywood ending to her storied career. 

Your failures and regrets likely won’t be so dramatic, but the lesson here is simple: Embrace your mistakes and make them a part of your story that is still being told. Instead of it being a mistake that defines you, make that mistake the turning point of your life, the moment that ultimately caused you to work harder to make the necessary changes in yourself. This will help you see past mistakes as ultimately positive since they caused the reflection necessary for you to change in the future. Remember, as long as you’re alive, your story is still being written!


2. Remember, regretting the past is a sign of growth.

“Seeing yourself means being honest, having clear insight, and being open to learning who you were in the past and who you are now.” - Nanette V. Hucknall, Higher Self Yoga: A Practical Teaching

If you want to never regret a past decision or behavior, you only have to do two things: first, never grow as a person, and second, never engage in any form of self-reflection. This blissful ignorance may sound appealing during dark times, but it also means you will likely live a mediocre and unfulfilled life. 

In order to reach our highest potential, we must continually reflect on our decisions and behavior in a way that will often make us uncomfortable. In order to deal with this discomfort, simply remind yourself that any regret you feel towards the past is often a sign that you’ve grown as a person. If you find yourself spending a lot of time regretting something rude or offensive you said to someone, it’s only because over time you’ve become a kinder and more empathetic person, something to pride yourself on rather than punish yourself for.

3. Judge yourself according to what you knew at the time, not what you know now.

“Learning from the past is very important, but let that learning be based on who you were at the time. See yourself only in terms of how much knowledge you had about life then and how much information you had about who you wanted to become.” - Nanette V. Hucknall, Higher Self Yoga: A Practical Teaching

It’s easy to punish ourselves over the past without remembering that we’ve had years (or even decades) to build up the additional wisdom and life experience needed to see the error of our ways. If you’re embarrassed about how you used to see the world or treat others, remember that in many cases, we’re raised with false beliefs as children, and these beliefs can stay with us unnoticed well into adulthood. Keep this in mind when you start judging your past self too harshly.

4. Try to focus on positive memories of your past.

“Letting go of a painful past is one of the most difficult things a person can do…This is because people, as a whole, tend to hold on to negative events in their lives—never fully releasing them.” - Nanette V. Hucknall, Higher Self Yoga: A Practical Teaching

Do you ever wonder why it’s so easy to remember embarrassing moments from ten years ago, but you struggle to remember what happened last week? There’s an evolutionary reason for this. Overall, humans have a negativity bias when it comes to past events, and it’s this bias that kept our ancestors alive in dangerous environments. Don’t touch that, don’t go there, don’t eat that… we’re hardwired to remember bad decisions that affected our survival. And since being outcast from the group for poor behavior can adversely affect those chances, it’s no surprise that we struggle to forget a social faux pas. 

The next time you find yourself falling down a rabbit hole of bad memories and negative thought patterns, try to remind yourself of the good things you’ve done in your life. Think of a time you comforted someone during a time of crisis, or a kind thing you said that might have made someone’s day. It might take a bit more searching to find those memories, but they’re in there (and likely far more numerous than the bad ones).

5. Forgive other people for past mistakes.

“People will hold on to wrongs done to them because it excites their need to get even. Even if they don’t act on that need, they will hold on to the need to do something in revenge. Holding on like this will only cause the person to live a life full of upset and self-defense.” - Nanette V. Hucknall, Higher Self Yoga: A Practical Teaching

Forgiving others is the only we can learn to forgive ourselves. At this moment, there are people you’ve crossed paths with who regret the way they behaved with you. It may have been a complete stranger that you never saw again, but they still remember you and how they treated you unfairly. Rather than assuming that that person never realized what they did and continued on behaving poorly (which sadly, sometimes is the case), imagine that person regretting that memory in the same way you regret your own past decisions. Once you can accept other people for being imperfect, it becomes far easier to forgive yourself for the same thing. 


Final Thoughts

As you work through troubling memories of your past, remember not to think of yourself as a static identity. Instead, see yourself as a moving force that can grow and evolve to become a better version of itself. Learn from the things that cause you sadness and rejoice in the things that give you happiness. As Nanette says,  you need to “let go of the negative events of the past, and see them now as stepping stones you needed to take to become whole.”