I had a dream last night about some negative things that happened in my past. I won’t go into details, but it suffices to say that the last couple of years have been a huge transition period for me. I’ve lost old friends, gained new ones; reevaluated my life and priorities; made big decisions, fell in love, took some risks, moved across the country, balked at the questionable decisions I’ve made in the past, and in the end, I’ve been left with a general feeling that my life is on a better and more positive path than it was two years ago.
But inevitably, during and after periods of transition in our lives, we must confront our own demons. We stare down our mistakes and inventory the consequences of those mistakes and despite a lot of those mistakes being well in the past, sometimes we’re left with the most difficult consequences of all: guilt and regret about things we’ve done or didn’t do.
I was no exception. A new start in a new city did not mean that all my mistakes remained behind. I carried them with me and I realized confronting them was the only way to eventually let them go. A few things I realized along the way…
Let Them In
Putting up a wall between yourself and negative feelings about your past only increases their power. Emotions are not like memories. Certain events can be forgotten, like say a conversation you had at the bar on Saturday night, but emotions cannot be given the slip that easily. They’ll simply go into hiding until the time is ripe for them to resurface. And they resurface with a vengeance, having gained strength by your attempts to suppress them. I think of it like a bottle of soda. If you open it up right away, it will fizz and bubble, but it won’t bubble over the top. But throw that bottle in your purse where it gets shaken repeatedly and then open it, suddenly there is Coke everywhere and you aren’t sure how it happened. Confronting guilt and regret is unpleasant, and given the every-day struggles in life, the last thing we want to do is babysit our own emotions. But it’s important to give credence to negative emotions as well as positive ones, especially ones such as guilt and regret, which can be particularly self-destructive. So roll up your sleeves, take a deep breath, and dig in. You do have it in you to deal with them.
Give Credit where Credit is due
And I don’t mean in a good way. Rarely ever is a bad situation one person’s fault, especially in the context of friendships or relationships that have soured. So when confronting events from your past and trying to understand the role you played, whether it be a break-up, falling out with a friend, a rift in your family, bad separation from a job, etc., remember there’s a point when you have to disperse some of the responsibility. We are never solely responsible for other people’s feelings or happiness. And if you’re like me, it’s tempting to take on all that responsibility, guilt, sadness, and anger yourself. But unless you were the sole wrong-doer against an innocent party, remember that part of dealing with these feelings is dealing with them in appropriate quantities. There’s nothing to be learned from taking responsibility for other people’s actions. So acknowledge what you did wrong, but remember the buck stops there.
Lean on Loved Ones
We all hopefully have those special friends and/or significant others in our lives. The ones who, no matter how drunk and mean you got, or how pathetic you look eating that 2nd tub of Ben and Jerry’s in bed while watching Sleepless in Seattle for the 12th time, will love you anyway. In fact, they’ll get almost as drunk and probably hop in bed to watch the movie with you a time or two. Opening up and talking about the guilt and regret you feel with them is, in my opinion, essential to putting those negative emotions behind you. While we tend to be mercilessly hard on ourselves, our best friends and lovers see us differently: as a combination of good and bad, perfect and flawed, beautiful and ugly, pristine and damaged. And they love us anyway. Emotions can be overwhelmingly complicated and make objectivity difficult, so having someone to listen who can see the forest for the trees helps you keep perspective.
Being able to walk away from something bad with a better understanding of yourself, relationships, or the world is always a silver lining. Instead of sweeping those unpleasant circumstances under the rug, analyze them. Figure out what lesson it was meant to teach you. Make those negative feelings count for something.
Let It Go
In a word, I mean forgive. Forgive yourself for the things you’ve done of which you are not proud, and forgive others for ways they’ve hurt you. Acknowledge the feelings, and then let them go. This is the hardest part, because we have a tendency to dwell on negative emotions. Even if others aren’t willing to let it go, that is their choice and remember that you don’t have to carry around their lingering feelings with you.
This might be the most important of them all. Nobody is perfect. We all make mistakes, feel guilty, have regrets, do or say things we shouldn’t. The sweet moments in life would be lost if not for the snippets of sour interspersed. So if all else fails, try to smile, because very rarely is it as bad as we think.