Updated: Nov 2, 2020
There is a huge misconception among those who seek personal improvement, thinking that in order to achieve success, you need to meticulously scrutinize your previous setbacks, including those that happened to you when you were a kid. In my career, I met many people who wanted to find answers and explanations of why they are not successful. They would dig so deep into their past, trying to understand what prompted them or others to make what they now deem 'mistakes' that precluded their growth. Interestingly, I was one of those people. I spent many years in a desperate attempt to resolve my childhood traumas. I felt if I didn’t address those, I would not be able to build a life of my dream. I analyzed my present behavior, compared it to my behavior as a kid, tried to identify all the milestones that led me to this miserable present as if I could somehow prevent them from happening. I spent years trying to understand why I was such a big screw-up (completely subjective and inaccurate self-evaluation). We think that if we could only understand what made us the way we are today, our lives would magically change and we can live happily ever after. But here is what actually the digging leads to:
1. Wild goose chase
While the reward of analyzing your past may seem worthy of your time, it is only an illusion. When we are consumed by digging up old evidence, some of which may be distorted entirely due to the nature of our brain to falsify our memory, we are not living in the present. Your life is now! It is so crucial to realize that your present moment is priceless. Scrutinizing your past is addicting, making you believe that if you dig a little bit deeper and longer, you will finally have all the information you need to move on with your life. So, you go on with your silly game, playing a paleontologist, not realizing that you are actually losing a lot more than those dug up fossils of your past – you are losing the present.
2. The continuation of the unwanted
It is no longer a secret that our thoughts create our reality. Not to get into the nitty-gritty of how our mind works, but here is what happens when you pay attention to something that activates your emotions – either good or bad: you begin attracting thoughts with the same emotions. It means that when you think of something that makes you feel sad, you will attract thoughts that will only increase your sadness. Needless to say, thoughts about our past rarely evoke warm and fuzzy feelings in us, especially when trying to understand why some negative events happened to you. These thoughts come in the form of nagging rumination, infused with a feeling of guilt, shame, or blame. Contemplating your past mistakes will make you feel inadequate, insecure, and worthless. You begin to drag these negative emotions into your present and, without even realizing it, seek out and captivate circumstances that amplify your negative perception of self. You begin to view your world through the lens of inadequacy, insecurity, and worthlessness. This being said, that when you are trying to understand why something bad happened to you, you are perpetuating these bad events in your present.
3. Vain attempt
There is no ending to digging, unfortunately. Why? Because your past is infinite. The time you just spent reading the previous sentence is already your past. You have a choice to either analyze it now as a part of your past experience or move on to the next section.
4. Hidden agenda
I savored the most dramatic part for the very culmination of this list. Here it is: If you are stuck in your sad past, there are two actual reasons why it’s happening, and you are not going to like either of them. First, you are trying to justify yourself. Most likely, you are in a desperate attempt to combat the feeling of guilt or shame, and finding a justifiable or valid reason allows you to feel less like a failure. I remember the story of when I just started my first corporate job. I was still in college at the time, and my new coworker, who was two times older than me and who held the same role I was hired to do, started telling me her life story that she was once just like me, dreaming to build a successful career, but then came unexpected illnesses, divorce, mother’s betrayal, and so forth. That story was nothing else than a well-choreographed performance of “Let me explain why I didn’t advance in my career.” If only there was an award for this! The truth of the matter is, you can tell yourself and others whatever story you wish as long as it makes you happy. But if you have a need for justification when it is not even requested, ask yourself: Am I really happy?
The second hidden agenda is a possibility that you are simply trying to find a scapegoat – someone or something you can comfortably blame for all setbacks. This happens when people fail or refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Having someone to blame may seem like a safe move at first. Observe: Why did you drop out of college? It’s my mom’s fault because she didn’t teach me how to be responsible. Why did you quit your job? It’s my dad’s fault because he quit on me now I do the same. Why can’t you lose weight? It’s my grandma’s fault because she made me addicted to delicious homemade muffins when I was little. And so on. Hope, you are getting my point. These excuses we feed ourselves with can be very subtle that we may not be able even to notice them. These excuses may seem like a safe and comfortable option, but they will ALWAYS hold you back from growth and success. For as long as you have someone or something to blame – it does not even matter whether they were actually wrong – you are the one who is trapped. And I do not preach forgiveness here either. I am simply telling you to move on.
Each of the topics I addressed above requires a deeper discussion. However, my goal here is to guide you to a better future, and for this purpose, we can end our conversation about problems and jump right into solutions that will bring you wonderful results. The resolution to your past-digging habit is so simple that it may seem unlikely at first. All you need to do is to become future-oriented by reversing everything you are doing with your past. For example:
If you are experiencing a feeling of guilt, shame, or regret – start feeling proud about your future.
If you are contemplating what went wrong – start thinking about what will go right.
Substitute rumination with daydreaming.
When referencing or comparing new issues to your past setbacks – envision your future without these issues or how masterfully you are able to overcome them.
If you are blaming someone, find a person you can love now or create that person in your mind (just don’t tell your friends about your mystery lover).
If you are trying to understand what happened and your past seems clouded – make your vision about the future crystal clear.
It will feel very uncomfortable or even impossible at first to turn your thoughts into a completely opposite direction. However, the same energy, time, and intensity you spend on contemplating your past, now can be spent on planning the future you desire. But you cannot do both. Don’t worry, this technic requires some practice. Once you master it and the habit of chewing on your sad past becomes less persistent, your life will begin to change beautifully in ways you couldn’t imagine. You will start to love and enjoy your new life so much that you will no longer want to recreate your past.