THE BLOG

Let It Go - The Past Is in the Past

08/01/2015 11:23 GMT | Updated 09/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Regret and self judgement often cast long shadows over our lives. By understanding how we form these self judgements and keep regrets alive, we can begin to free ourselves of old hurts and unhelpful beliefs about who we are.

As we settle into January the hype, hangovers and happy new years that flooded our holidays disappear and we are, again, on the same path that we were on before. There's no new page, no clean sweep over an old chapter that we can leave behind at the stroke of midnight on the 31st of December. We bring everything with us into this new year. Everything. Old happiness and love, old hurts, regrets, judgements, opinions and pain. Some of these make long shadows that grow longer with every passing year. What if it doesn't have to be this way? What if we could go into this new year, loving every bit of ourself and our story - the good and not so good bits, dark and light?

The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside

At 18, I couldn't afford to go to university, so I got a job as a secretary at a mutual fund company and promised myself that I would study part time to fulfil my dream of being a psychologist. When the firm I worked for offered to pay my tuition, I was overjoyed. But there was a catch; I had to study a business or finance related degree. When you are 18 and broke and someone offers to fund a fortune in university fees and give you time off to study for exams as well - you don't say no. So I studied economics. I spent eight years finishing my undergrad degree and the next 10 years regretting it. Every single day. Now, I could never be a psychologist. I had blown it. I was stuck in finance and would never fulfil the one clear calling I had since I was in junior school. I dragged this regret around with me for so long that it just became part of who I was. The girl who sold herself out, who will never live her dream. What a waste. I had no-one to blame but myself, my 18 year old self.

Many of my coaching clients have similar baggage that goes everywhere with them and it sounds like this, "I'm still fat, I still don't have that promotion, I'm still single, I made a bad decision years ago and can't forgive myself." "Of course," they say, "I count my blessings: I have a wonderful daughter, son, wife, husband, dog, job. But if I could just be a little more of this or a little less of that then I'd be so much happier."

Couldn't keep it in, Heaven knows I've tried

The years passed and 40 appeared on my horizon. Would I allow myself to go into my fourth decade with this shadow of regret still looming large? By now I knew that regret and self judgement were tricks of memory and I knew how to change their effects, too.

It was time to release these unhelpful stories and memories that I had allowed to define who I was - or believed I was.

Neuroscience teaches us that memories that fire together, wire together. Like a smell that takes you back to a place or person because the memory of the smell and that place or person were created together, and so are recalled together.

When you think of yourself does another thought jump in there and remind you of what you are or don't have? Perhaps you always remember that you just aren't confident, knowledgeable or experienced enough to (insert what you really want here). Self image is the memory that we recall every time we think of ourselves. And every time we think about ourselves and recall that memory, we strengthen it. Until one day it becomes a belief. An unconscious knowing about ourself that we no longer challenge.

Conceal, don't feel

If you truly want to release yourself from a hurtful self image or regret, then try changing the thoughts you have every time you think about yourself. This will create a new neural pathway with different information in the section of your long-term memory labelled 'self'. But there's a catch here, too. You actually have to truly believe these new thoughts. If you believe you are overweight or lacking in self confidence, then standing in front of your mirror and telling yourself otherwise - "Oh, look how thin I am," or, "Boy, I'm so confident I could take on toastmasters," is not going to help you. In fact, the cognitive dissonance this creates can lead to all sorts of other unhelpful ailments.

Instead, when you think of yourself or someone calls attention to you, purposefully remember positive qualities that you truly believe about yourself. "I'm a good mother or father. I'm resilient. I'm faithful. I'm kind. I'm a great dresser. I have gorgeous eyes." Slowly, the previous unhelpful memory will fade as you no longer strengthen it through recall. And you might just find yourself actually losing weight, loving yourself more or being more confident. I've seen how these small quirks of memory change lives in wonderful ways.

I'm never going back, the past is in the past

You are not defined by what you are or have achieved but by what you believe of yourself over time. Others can only define you if you allow their opinions to influence the memories (thoughts) that you constantly make and recall about yourself.

The fears that once controlled me, can't get to me at all

So I knew how to release this persistent regret of mine but was I ready to do that? Would I know myself without it? Oh gosh. Was I ready to move on? What would my new story be?

As I went through this process, Disney's Frozen was released. I'm trying not to read too much into it, but I think there are reasons other than a catchy tune that make it such a popular song, loved by old and young. You know what I mean?

So as the new year blows in; let the storm rage on, regret never controlled us anyway.

Tremaine du Preez is a behavioural economist, author and executive coach based in Asia. She blogs at her Thoughts on Thinking Blog and on her Daily Decision Facebook Page.