Everything we value in the lives we’ve built rests in part on our bad decisions.
Is there anyone who doesn’t have a time or phase of their lives they regret? Something that they can’t quite forgive themselves for?
For me and many women I know, it’s stuff from our chaotic late teens and early 20s. A lot of us came into adulthood like an asteroid entering the atmosphere, burning up our own selves and everything in our path. At the time, it wasn’t clear if there would be anything left by the time we finally touched down, and it took a long while to clear the wreckage that was left.
The difficult thing is, the same fucked up shit about gender and sexuality that made the entry so painful also gave us a major tendency to yell at ourselves. This is especially hard to combat when we believe what we did was genuinely hurtful to ourselves, and sometimes even to others. “Acting out” – the technical name for what we were doing in the asteroid years – is a survival mechanism. But looking back it can seem like our behavior was the problem rather than the only solution we could access at the time.
I hated this part of my history so much that I used to carry this kind of alternative version of myself in my head, one who had never been so messy, so out of control, so fucking oblivious. She got all As in college, she went to a better graduate school, she didn’t get into debt. By now she’d own a house. She’d have all the good stuff of my life now, but also all the stuff I felt like I’d missed out on or detoured around, when I was too busy acting out to act right. I felt so deprived in relation to her, and the worst part was, I was the one who did the depriving.
What has finally helped me let some of that go has been challenging the idea that I could be the person I am now, with all the things I’ve built in my life that I value, if my past had been different. This kind of pick-and-mix thinking enables our brains to torture us with might-have-beens, but it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
Think about it: despite what your brain may want to suggest, the only path to who you are right now is the one that has taken you through every single thing you’ve experienced up to this point. Every action, every decision, every selection in the forking path of endlessness decision trees you’ve faced minute by minute: they all had to play out exactly as they did to have brought you to this moment.
So even if you could trade part of your past, to do that would mean trading the entirety of your existence now for some other unknown other version. Anything you enjoy about the life you’ve built or the person you are today depends just as much on every shitty decision you believe you made as it does on every good decision. They were all necessary to you arriving exactly here.
For me, this has way of thinking has created a different approach to self-forgiveness. When I start to wish away the self-destruction of my asteroid years, I remind myself that my capacity to think and act differently now requires that fucked up past — and not just because of what it taught me, but because that’s how time works. The only way to get to my present is through every single thing that happened in my past.
When I look at my younger self from this perspective, I don’t see someone straying off the path I wish I’d traveled. I see someone who somehow started staggering her way toward the person I wanted to become. In all her chaotic mess, she was hewing the only possible through line that could ever exist to the version of me typing these words right now. Even her worst mistakes were necessary — which means I can approach them with a lot less regret.
Once we stop longing for that alternative, perfected timeline, we can stop blaming ourselves for having failed to create it. Not only does self forgiveness become easier, but there’s also suddenly a lot less to forgive.