I’m often harder on myself than on historical figures who lived in the distant past.
I try to be self-reflective and self-aware and, for the most part, succeed. It takes a negative turn when I spend time analyzing and judging my past actions, leading to anger at myself for poor decisions I made long ago that I can’t change.
This personality quirk is my personal version of the historical fallacy called “presentism.”
Presentism says that historians should not judge the actions of those who lived in the past using present-day ideas, perspectives, and morals because it can lead to cultural bias and make it difficult to understand historical events. We see this often in the attacks on the Founding Fathers, who were men of their times but who, through some of their actions, failed to live up to modern standards.
We can’t understand someone who lived 250 years ago if we judge his actions the same way we would a person today.
When I get upset at my 25-year old self for the actions I took, I apply a form of presentism to my own life. If I knew then what I know now, I would have acted in different ways, sparing myself much pain. Knowing this makes me second-guess myself.
Each day there is something that reminds me of a past event, and I begin the automatic process of analyzing my actions and judging them. The fact is past me can’t live up to the standards I have for myself now. This weighs me down and fills me with regret.
The concept of forgiveness is an important one, particularly in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and it’s something I try to apply in my relationships. It’s much easier to forgive others than myself.
Self-reflection is important, but when thinking about things that can’t be changed, there is a danger of internal conflict and self-doubt. We all wish we had the ability to go back in time to make changes consistent with the people we’ve grown into, but we don’t. This is hard, but necessary, to accept.
What can we do when we find ourselves drifting back in time? While I don’t yet have all the answers, I have taken the first step, which is diagnosing the problem.
A quote attributed to Albert Einstein is: “Past is dead; Future is uncertain; Present is all you have, So eat, drink and live merry.”
This is a good starting point.
When we overanalyze and judge our past selves, we continue to live in the past, even though it’s dead and decaying. We allow it to seep into our present like an unwelcome intruder that won’t leave and won’t let us “eat, drink and live merry” in peace.
It affects our ability to find joy and wonder in our lives, and despite the current uncertainty, there is so much joy and wonder to be found. I don’t want to lose out on it because I’m stuck thinking about decisions I made twenty years ago.
Awareness of the problem allows me to recognize when unwanted thoughts float into my head. This gives me an opportunity to try to let them go. Meditation, when I have the motivation, helps me. When I’m meditating, my purpose isn’t to stop thinking; rather, it’s to notice and be aware of all thoughts that pop up, acknowledge them, refuse to engage with them, and let them go.
I know that this awareness and ability to recognize my thoughts must be a constant part of my life.
If I slip, I get stuck again, residing in the dead past and miss out on the living present. I like the person I am in my 40’s much better than the person I was in my 20’s, and I want to live here and not there.
It’s something I’m actively working to fix, and I encourage you to do the same if you have the same struggles.
Recognize the problem, guard your thoughts, and be mindful of your self-talk. This is how I will break out of this habit. When I’m successful, the past is dead in my life. When I’m not, I find it hard to eat, drink, and live merry.
A choice was posed in the “The Shawshank Redemption” that has stuck with me: “I guess it comes down to the simple choice, really – get busy living or get busy dying.” When we live overcritical of our dead past, we are “getting busy dying.” When we let it go, we can “get busy living.”
The choice is each of ours to make. Choose well.
Written By Chris
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