Letting Go & Getting Over It
May 26, 2015 9:02 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone ever made a mistake that they just can't stop replaying over and over in their head? I think that I accept the mistakes that I made and the decisions that led up to it, but I keep thinking why in the world did I have to do what I did. Every day I get up and I am thinking about the past. I made a mistake that was so big that it has permanently jeopardized my future. It's been almost two years since this problem first appeared. Some things have improved since that time but other things have gotten much worse. On a scale of 1 - 10 as far as big fuck ups go, this one would be about an 11. How do you process something like this and live with it so that you're not constantly thinking about it?
posted by nidora to Human Relations (15 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry you're having to deal with this. I've suffered from this kind of rumination myself -- just going over and over what happened. For me, a couple things tend to be helpful: the first, and probably the most obvious, is to do something constructive. This doesn't always mean addressing the specific problem, although that's great if you can manage it. But even if you can't tackle the issue itself, doing something constructive in your life or in the world can really help. It helps address the problem of feeling powerless. It helps address the problem of feeling powerless.

Another thing that helps often is talking to someone, possibly a professional, but also possibly just a person with some perspective. As long as you don't talk about the issue constantly, venting about it can help to exercise the demon. And the other person's perspe as long as you don't talk about the issue constantly, venting about it can help to exercise the demon. And the other person's perspective can help you find ways to let go.
posted by JaneEyre at 9:14 PM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
― Maya Angelou

(that's what I keep telling myself, any way)
posted by WesterbergHigh at 9:21 PM on May 26, 2015 [57 favorites]

How do you process something like this and live with it so that you're not constantly thinking about it?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [Wikipedia] and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy [Wikipedia]. I also look forward to adopting two cats.
posted by Little Dawn at 10:02 PM on May 26, 2015

I think it would be much harder to find people who haven't experienced this. You're not alone. When my mind starts spinning on a big regret and I can't stop mentally beating myself up, I repeat over and over, "I forgive you." Accepting your mistakes and forgiving yourself are very different. It's time to focus on forgiveness.
posted by cecic at 10:58 PM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's a saying from Confucius that has helped me accept and integrate some really awful blunders I've made:

In archery we have something like the way of the superior man. When the archer misses the center of the target, he turns round and seeks for the cause of his failure in himself.

Partly why like it is that it suggests an attitude of inquisitive self-appraisal, which is a tranquil attitude. An attitude of somewhat detached curiosity. The archer doesn't berate himself, he just calmly looks for the cause in himself. And the ability to do this, instead of blaming others, is already a sign of nobility. (The Analects of Confucius [pdf] is full of useful thoughts.)

Another thinker who's helped me integrate my own egregious failure is, honest to goodness, Hegel. May or may not resonate with you, but here is what he said:

Natural consciousness will prove itself to be only knowledge in principle or not real knowledge. Since, however, it immediately takes itself to be the real and genuine knowledge, this pathway has a negative significance for it; what is a realization of the notion of knowledge means for it rather the ruin and overthrow of itself; for on this road it loses its own truth. Because of that, the road can be looked on as the path of doubt, or more properly a highway of despair.

On the way to genuine knowledge and freedom, one sees what one has taken to be truth, and what, actually, was the truth that defined one, destroyed, by the reality of the world, so to speak. So I apply this to my personal blunders and think: if it was even possible for me to make the error I did make, my truth at the time, that truth that guided my decisions, was a false truth. I can therefore rejoice in the error I made, because it brought to my attention a larger and more systematic falsehood in me that allowed the error to happen. And so, relieved of this falsehood, I can get on with trying to put together a different, and truer truth-for-me. The idea is that the self doesn't just grow and change, it is also transfigured by its own error; so committing a big mistake is actually a chance to disencumber oneself of a larger personal falsehood in how one has been thinking -- or behaving as if -- the world is.

To re-phrase: a big mistake is revealing, and a chance for introspective growth; if we can manage to not be attached to whatever we thought was so important and that the mistake prevented, then we can calmly set about reconfiguring ourselves in ways that open up horizons likely preferable to the faulty horizons we were working with when we made the horrible mistake.
posted by bertran at 11:00 PM on May 26, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think (other than acceptance) it depends on the nature of the mistake (was it a genuine mistake, or was it intentional or the result of negligence? What about illness or other mitigating factors?), its consequences (were other people hurt? Were you? How badly?), whether or not you want to continue with the future you'd started on (and whether that's realistic, if yes), or can imagine other possibilities.

With some plans, it's possible to find a way around the obstacle, if you have enough energy. (If you can't get in through the front door, go in through the back, kind of thing.) With others, that's not really realistic. Then you have to get creative and look around and see what else you can do.

If you've hurt someone, or yourself, address this.

If your mistake was more deliberate, understand that and own up to it. Try to figure out why you did what you did, and change something about the behaviour that led up to it. If there were a lot of mitigating circumstances, understand those, and look at your actions with compassion, knowing you did the best (or all) you could at the time, given where you were in life.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:06 PM on May 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

Every single should-have-done has a more useful rephrasing: rather than "In circumstance X I should have done Y instead of Z", use "Next time circumstance X arises I will do Y rather than Z".

If you practise noticing when you've entered a beating-yourself-up loop, and practice positively rephrasing the should-have-done or wish-I'd-done at its heart according to the plan above, you'll find that your terrible past mistake - that thing you'd rather hadn't happened - slowly gets recast as a valuable life lesson for which you can be genuinely, unreservedly grateful.
posted by flabdablet at 4:08 AM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Since you're still alive and posting this, the fuckup level was not 11.

Mistakes happen, some small, some big, some huge, but often, after time, one realizes they were not as bad as originally considered.

Keep in mind that to err is human, and every single person in this world who has lived long enough will have at least one major fuckup somewhere in their life.
posted by eas98 at 6:57 AM on May 27, 2015

Recently, I took a bunch of my favorite students out to dinner in honor of their graduation from college. The conversation got pretty deep, and at one point, one of them turned to me and asked, wide-eyed and very serious, as though I was on my death-bed (I'm 33) "pretentious illiterate, do you have any regrets?"

I'm not sure how I would have answered that question in other circumstances, but when it arrived in the context of a twenty-one year old hungry for life-advice, the answer was suddenly blindingly obvious. "No," I said. "I don't. There are lots of things I did when I was younger where, if I were in the same position again, knowing what I know now, I would act differently. But the only reason I have that knowledge is because I went through the process of making those mistakes. If I'd known they were mistakes at the time, obviously I wouldn't have made them! That lived experience is where the knowledge that they were mistakes came from. That's all that learning is. Wishing that I'd acted differently in light of knowledge I didn't possess at the time is nonsensical; it's the equivalent of saying, 'I wish I could have magically known the answers to the test without having to ever open the book.' Like, sure. That definitely would have been easier! But I don't regret any of it, any more than I regret not being psychic, or not being able to fly."

Later, I thought about it some more, and there are two poems that, in combination, I think capture this really well.

The first is Theodore Roethke's The Waking.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

I learn by going where I have to go. None of us were handed maps to this life; we go forward, blindly, trying our best, shaped by each hard choice and error. What falls away is always, and is near. When I read this line, I imagine a sculptor carving away a chunk of rock as a statue begins to emerge. The past is gone, it falls away, irretrievable, and yet it shapes us as completely as that absent piece of rock, and in that sense is always close by; we are formed by what is gone. To wish for the past back (that is, to regret) is to wish that our present selves - which were formed by that experience -would disappear, and so is a kind of death wish, a desire for obliteration, formlessness, erasure. The absent stone is visible in the shape of the statue, and so is never truly gone. Living is the carving out of the self through loss.

The other poem is too long to quote here, and not quite so heartening, but it's beautiful. It's Calmly We Walk Through This April Day by Delmore Schwartz.

This is the last stanza:

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

Time is an all-consuming fire. Everything is lost to it. Not just this one mistake you made, but your past, my past, everything that ever happened before this instant - gone, up in smoke, absolutely irretrievable. Your mistake, your happiest memory, your birth, your parents' courtship, the day Delmore Schwartz wrote this poem, the Napoleonic Wars, the moment you wrote this question, it's all gone. Each minute bursts in the burning room. You can mourn every one of those minutes fruitlessly and forever, or you can see them for what they were - beautiful and transient and infinitely tiny fragments of this huge pageant of the past that exists now only in memory. It's almost impossible to fully comprehend, but when I can - when I can capture that insight and really feel it - it's accompanied by a feeling of weightlessness and dizzying, terrifying freedom. That's what's so awful and beautiful about the past. You don't have to learn to let it go. It's all already gone.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:18 AM on May 27, 2015 [24 favorites]

"Has anyone ever made a mistake that they just can't stop replaying over and over in their head?"

Yes, everyone.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:39 PM on May 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

One trick I've learned is reminding me that just as there is someone out there who has lived a wiser life, there's also someone out there has fucked up just as bad me and is still puttering along, as well as those who have fucked up worse than me and are still finding their way.

Then I do my best to distract myself with something else.
posted by smirkette at 3:53 PM on May 27, 2015

The people here noting that (surely, almost) everyone feels this way aren't being sassy. This experience is something akin to "the human condition," and thinkers across the ages have sought to address it in more ways than can be counted. I sought out meditation and contemplation through the lens of (accidentally) a zen monk I happened to meet in my city, and have found the practice helpful, but also instructive. At least to some degree because I, too, still think about The 11 Experience on a routine basis. Things reminder me of It, that's just the way it is. That's the way it will always be, I think, but, like giving up cigarettes, the pangs get a little weaker and a little more spread out each time I successfully avoid giving into the temptation to ruminate needlessly.

I also found someone who I like to think of as my better half. The compassion and understanding of others comes as a salve to many, but not all, when learning to pull one's focus away from the past, or even the nebulous future, and toward the present. There are many ways to engage the present that don't involve a significant other, and the presence of the present in your moment-to-moment existence is something worth dwelling on in place of Your 11.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:16 PM on May 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

"Has anyone ever made a mistake that they just can't stop replaying over and over in their head?"

Oh god yes, but I've had a lot of success with CBT writing it out and responding to my brain's catastrophizing of the event. It looks really silly on paper when I realize that I think because I sent a dumb email or something the night before that my career is ruined, or I'll never find someone to fall in love with.

For me, it was very important to get it out of my head. I can run endless increasingly fast loops where the event replays worse and worse and worse while I kind of mentally repeat my failures.

Any mistake you made can be fixed or moved on from, but the shame and regret do nothing to help that process. In fact, they only make it harder because you may get into a depressive spiral and not move forward. So forgive yourself and then you can practically look at the problem or if nothing can be done, move on.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 10:24 PM on May 27, 2015

You need to try to be your own best friend. What would you say to your best friend if they came to you and told you all about this fuck-up? You would tell them to forgive themselves, everyone makes mistakes (even huge ones), errors are a huge part of the human condition.

Forgive yourself. It will take a long time, for sure. But forgive yourself.
posted by getawaysticks at 8:09 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

People make mistakes.
People make mistakes that cause the deaths of other people. Terrible things have been done by mistake, unintentionally, thoughtlessly, more terrible than you could imagine. and as a compassionate stranger, you would feel probably feel deeply sympathetic for that mistake, and let that person know that they are not defined by a single bad decision.

Now, you said this mistake went up to "11"...
But only referred to it as 'a problem', and harming only your future.
Which makes it very much sound like you didn't physically harm someone else, you didn't kill someone in a DUI, you didn't leave a baby in a car, you didn't
Whatever it is, it isn't an eleven, and even if it was, you would still be a human being deserving of compassion, especially from yourself.
If you are rating a "didn't kill another human being" event as an 11, it means in this case, you are catastrophising, and that is a terrible little habit that will magnify the normal glancing blows into a terrible life, partly out of a distorted sense of ones own importance.
Practice compassion for strangers, friends, family. Then, think of yourself as a one of those little humans, doing their best - keep your own life in perspective, and view yourself with that same compassion you would give a stranger.
posted by Elysum at 8:58 AM on May 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

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