How to Stop Punishing Yourself for the Past
“True justice is paying only once for each mistake”
How often do we overlook the above aphorism as we repeatedly revisit past mistakes, injuries, and confrontations? There are times I lie sleepless and recall arguments I had with college sweethearts, high school teachers, and even the grade school bully. What do I get for my trouble? Sometimes I experience that all-too-familiar wave of panic, other times an uneasy stomach or a rapidly beating heart; that feeling is almost always accompanied by guilt, resentment, or both. The experience never benefits me and I’ve reached the point in my life where I need to stop it.
The Problem of Repunishment
We’ve been conditioned from birth to retain our flaws and mistakes in two ways: by example and through confrontation. The first form of conditioning is by example; we see and hear our parents do it every day. Your dad forgets to take the trash out after dinner; your mom gets angry and calls him on it. But instead of saying: “Dear, your forgot the trash”, she says: “You forgot the trash again! You NEVER remember to take it out!” Now your dad doesn’t deal with the current situation, rather he relives every time he forgot. He feels guilt and frustration well up, he becomes defensive, and the argument begins. The second form of conditioning is more direct; someone will be displeased and say: “How many times do I have to tell you…” Then we relive each of our past mistakes and feel the guilt, the pain, and the frustration.
By the time we’re in high school (if not long before), we’ve become so conditioned that we put ourselves through the ringer. We don’t need anyone else to do it to us; we start repunishing ourselves. You run late for work after school, again. Instead of focusing on today’s tardiness, you relive each time you have been late. The panic and guilt start to build, and build, and build as you revisit each transgression. When you finally get to work you have rehashed every time you have been late to work, and you re-experience all of the negative energy from each time.
The worst part of the situation, however, is that we don’t let anything go. We retain all of this emotional poison and add the new stuff. Then, the NEXT time something happens, we get to revisit it all AGAIN. And the cycle continues, because we have great memories and consciences. We make a mistake, we judge ourselves, we find our selves guilty, and we punish ourselves. No wonder we go through our lives feeling defensive, guilty, and uncertain.
Taking Control Of Our Lives
However, we can take control of our lives and stop this painful cycle. The process isn’t difficult, but it will be unsettling at first and require some adjustment. We experience this discomfort as we rebel against what we’ve learned and become accustomed to our entire lives. The more ingrained our solution becomes, however, the more comfort it provides as we adapt to the new standard. I’ve outlined below the process I have been using to stop this self punishment.
1. Acknowledge and own the mistake. This not only calms us but gives us some power over the situation. If something “isn’t our fault”, then how can we take action to correct the situation? We can’t. By accepting responsibility for a situation, we make ourselves “response able” (thanks to Steven Covey for this phrase).
2. Identify the mistake. Analyze the situation and see just exactly what caused the undesired outcome. It could have been a simple typo, it could have been procrastination, it could have been a misunderstanding, it could have been an omission, etc. Whatever the source of the problem, we need to identify it as clearly and completely as possible.
3. Correct the problem. Implement a new system to avoid omissions, determine where our scheduling technique broke down, etc. Make sure that, to the best of our ability, that we have implemented a solution that should prevent the same (or a very similar) mistake from recurring. Be proud of this accomplishment – it enables us to let go of our disappointment, guilt, frustration, fear, anger, etc.
4. Move on. Obviously this is harder than it sounds. However, our preparation above has led us to a position where we can honestly tell ourselves that we know what happened, we don’t like what happened, and we have fixed the problem that led to it occurring. By taking both responsibility and action, we create a powerful combination that allows us, with a bit of discipline, to live in the present and not rehash the past.
If we find ourselves trying to rehash a past mistake, it is important to STOP. Observe what we are doing, identify the problem triggering this response, and remind ourselves of the solution we implemented to stop that problem from repeating. Then focus on our solution and a couple of instances where our solution has led to positive outcomes. As we train ourselves to make this part of our process, we’ll be pleasantly surprised to find this easier and easier to accomplish.
Photo by frankieleon