Why we replay mistakes over and over in our minds and 5 ways to help let go of them for good.
For a long time, I pushed myself to do too much. I took on every writing project for my clients. I helped friends and family whenever they asked. I volunteered in my community.
I planned most meals for my family, bought the groceries, cooked dinners from scratch each day, and helped out at school events. I filled our son’s life with activities — and drove him and picked him up from each of them.
The list was endless.
I did it all. But doing so much and often getting overwhelmed means I also made a ton of mistakes. And felt them all deeply. They cut me to pieces. I was a failure, the worst person in the world.
Letting go of mistakes isn’t easy. Intellectually, I know I don’t want to feel the pain of past failures, so why is it so difficult to let go? Why do I return to tough moments, again and again, reliving them in detail in the movie theatre of my mind?
Guilt and regret are attempts to gain control over things we can’t control. The events are in the past so of course, we can’t change the outcomes, but feeling the pain and guilt we attach to them gives us a sort of agency over them. They’re ours to control, even if it’s just by reliving the memories over and over.
The sliver of daylight between my worst and best selves
Like the time I forgot to put a dollar in my son’s backpack so he could buy cookies at the school bake sale in grade one. He was heartbroken and cried. I volunteered at the event (of course), found him, and gave him the money, but still, the sight of his tear-stained face, made me sob.
I filled my life with so many ways to show him how much I loved him and still, I let him down. The morning I stuffed his backpack with snacks and books is so clear to me. It would be so easy to redo, right? I play out countless if only scenarios, so many different outcomes, trying to find ones that don’t fill me with so much regret.
Or the afternoon when I felt abandoned, left out, unloved, and in a fit of anger, swore at my husband in a text. It was dismissive and made him feel he wasn’t important to me at all. He was surprised and hurt at the extent of my rage. I was, too, and the thought of causing him any pain is gut-wrenching to me.
I still remember seeing the words I’d typed, my fingertips hovering over the little blue arrow, considering if I should launch the statement, deliver it directly to the man I love, the sweetest person I know. And it’s that moment I relive. That hovering between potential and completed action. That’s the moment of agency my mind wants so desperately to control. The sliver of daylight between my worst and best selves. But the ending never changes no matter how much I want it to.
Reliving these mistakes, typing the words even now, years later, the pain is still very real. I feel unworthy and unloveable. And I bring it all on myself.
It’s madness, clearly — but what’s the antidote? Forgiveness. But how to get there when the mistake highlight reels have been replayed so often they almost seem ingrained? Over time I’ve found five things that are really helpful. Trying to implement them can be hard sometimes, but they have such an incredible impact and are so much better than the alternative.
1. Practicing self-compassion
Think less asking why or resisting the compulsion to ruminate about difficult memories, and more speaking to yourself with compassion. Less, “I can’t believe I said something so mean” or “how could I have forgotten to put the little bag of coins in his backpack?”; more “it was a difficult moment and you’ll do better next time” or “you found him in the end and saved the day — great job!”
Moving to this new way of thinking takes work. Becoming aware of negative self-talk is the first step and daily meditation helps me focus on awareness and presence in general. Next comes replacing negative thoughts with positive ones, which can be a tricky one.
With practice, I’m finding it easier to catch myself more often and make a better decision in the moment. It’s kind of freaky and empowering to see I have a choice about how I’ll spend my time—start the reel again or be kind to myself and put it behind me. These days, it usually takes me less time to notice the start of the spiral and make the decision not to follow it. It becomes easier to let the memory go.
2. Being kind to yourself all the time
It’s also about practicing inner dialogue that’s positive, forgiving and kind all the time, not just when you feel you mess up badly. Taking care to be gentler with yourself when you forget something small or make a tiny mistake, so that when you bumble what you feel is something bigger, more important, you have the muscle memory to react with compassion, rather than harsh judgement.
Seeing that ability to be gentler and kinder with myself emerge over time has been incredibly rewarding. Watching it play out every day shows me how much progress I’ve made and helps motivate me to keep at it. Experiencing greater self-compassion for the little things that go wrong makes me see how small steps are an investment in myself, when I’ll need it for the bigger mishaps and missteps that will inevitably come up.
3. Getting a sense of perspective
Part of being kinder to yourself involves making sure you don’t go down long and winding rabbit holes of self-criticism, where you can turn something tiny that anyone could mess up into a massive, overwhelming and insurmountable problem that you can convince yourself has completely destroyed the happiness and wellbeing of everyone around you.
Sometimes I zoom out from myself, to look at me inside my house from above, then from a height atop the city, the continent, the earth. Next, I zoom out further to the other side of the solar system, the galaxy, until I’m in another part of the universe, looking at myself from a distance that drives home the unmistakable: this moment is just a dot in my lifetime. The feelings I have at this moment are fleeting. They’ll disappear and others will soon take their place.
4. Celebrating the great times — basking in the joy
It’s so important to acknowledge and revel in the beautiful moments you help create every day for the people you love. It’s easy to zero in on problems and and focus on how badly you’ve handled situations in the past. Congratulating yourself on doing awesome doesn’t come naturally for most people. But it should.
It’s something I work on every day by trying to be completely present and enjoying when things go well. So that when I have that wonderful moment, I take pride in it and bask in the joy.
It’s also helped me expand to high-fiving other people more often when they experience successes and great moments– and being present for them. I’ve loved seeing the smile on my son’s face when I congratulate him on finishing his homework or my husband when he earns a new client or a friend when I tell her how amazing she looks in that new sweater. It helps me connect more with everyone around me and create a whole chain of moments of joy.
5. Saying thank you to … yourself
As an extension of those moments of glory, thank yourself for creating them. “Thank you,” is an extremely profound thing to say to yourself and most of us don’t say it enough. It can become an invaluable part of your everyday life, making you more confident and boosting your sense of wellbeing overall.
Saying thank you to myself actually makes me pretty emotional, which means I know I’m touching on something important. Something vital for my soul.
It’s something I’ve missed and didn’t even know I wanted or needed. It makes the little girl inside me who longs for that acknowledgment and attention so happy. It brings me to tears, but it also gives me a deep sense of appreciation, gratitude, and fulfillment all in one. Who knew saying two simple words to yourself could do all that?
You’ll notice a theme running through my steps to self-compassion: daily practice. Remembering to be kind to myself once in a while, doesn’t have the same impact. I fall too easily back into bad habits. Making it part of my life every day, being intentional with my words and dedicated to bettering my relationship with myself all the time is what’s helping me step around those pesky rabbit holes.
It’s contributing to my growth as a human being and giving me more time to focus on who and what’s important to me. It’s also making me happier and, hopefully, benefitting everyone around me — and helping them be kinder to themselves and others, too.