How often have you thought about a situation in your past and told yourself “I should’ve known better”? This is a very common line of thinking that we use to beat ourselves up and judge ourselves for past mistakes. It’s easy to tell ourselves we should know better, but it actually serves no purpose and only makes us feel worse. In order to take positive, inspired action, what we tell ourselves about our past behaviour has to change.
Throughout my experience of being a coach, I have witnessed many women express some flavour of “I should’ve known better”. It’s not unusual for her to express frustration and /or judgement about herself and her past. Usually she feels that she should not have done something that she did, said or felt.
This happens to all of us. It happens because we have a human brain.
The brain is a wonderful and complex thing.
However, the primitive part of our brain – the part that has kept our species alive and evolving for thousands of years, has certain tendencies. These tendencies include conserving energy, keeping us safe by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.
In order to protect us, the brain will continuously recycle thoughts about our past to remind us of problems. By reminding us of past failures and mistakes, the brain is trying to keep us from trying it again in an effort to protect us.
The brain also like to be efficient, so it’s easy to keep these thoughts on a repetitive loop. Why waste energy on thinking something new? Thinking about past events becomes a habit and we develop well worn neural pathways in our brain repeating the same stories and thoughts over and over again. There’s no work involved for it. Plus the brain will get a hit of dopamine as a reward for what it perceives as helping us to stay alive.
As a result, we continue to beat ourselves up and judge ourselves, thereby making us feel terrible, from which no inspired, positive action can come. We waste valuable time and energy on this thinking and we remain past-focused instead of being future-focused. When we keep ourselves focused on the past, we only land up creating more of the same. But when we are future-focused, we spending time and energy on where we are going and what we want to create.
So, what can we do when we find ourselves mired in the past and telling ourselves we should’ve known better?
One of the best lessons I share in coaching is around creating awareness about what we are thinking. Becoming aware of how our brain works and the patterns what appear in our daily lives is empowering. With awareness, we gain the ability to step back and reflect on whether something is serving us or not. Catching yourself when you are beating up yourself, criticising yourself or judging, is the first step to making changes. It will take practice, but you will become better at recognising it when you do it.
When you do catch yourself doing it, treat yourself with understanding and compassion. Of course this is what your brain is offering you. It’s just doing its job. Nothing has gone wrong.
Sometimes it helps to write it all down and get it out of your head and onto paper. Seeing it in black and white, you will be able to decipher which thoughts are keeping you stuck in the past and beating yourself up about certain situations or issues. Once you are able to see what you are thinking in a more objective light, then you can start to recognise patterns. From there, you can consciously decide what you want to keep thinking and what you want to begin to let go of.
When you find your brain taking you back to the past and thinking about what happened (and it will), you will have to actively and purposely redirect it. Just as you would lead a dog with a leash down the path you want to go, you must give your brain something else to think about. Direct it to think about how you are now doing things differently, where you are going or what you creating for your future. You will have to be assertive in not letting it dwell on what happened. Remind yourself there is no upside to it.
Left to its own devices, the brain will continually pull up the past, dwell on mistakes and look for problems. It’s takes effort and practice to redirect your brain and focus on something that does serve you, but it is possible. Your brain will not like it. It will not want to expend the energy, but it will be worth it in the end.
It may help, in the moment, to redirect your brain to think of 3 lessons you learned because of it, or perhaps look for 3 examples of how you are already doing things differently. Your brain loves to answer questions and solve for things. By asking it to solve for coming up for examples like this, it not only gives our brain something more constructive to do, it will also internalise this evidence and each time this memory and thought pattern comes up, it will start to feel less true for you.
Beating yourself up, judging or shoulding (as in, you should have done x) has no upside. It will only make you feel worse. Sometimes we mistakenly believe that if we berate ourselves, it will push us to do better, but this is never the case. It only serves to make you feel bad and from that emotion, you will never be able to take more inspired action.
In order to move yourself forward and to start putting the past behind you, it is best to assume at the time you made the decision or action, you were acting on the best information you had. Perhaps you did some research and choose a particular option or course of action. Maybe someone withheld information from you and so you didn’t know all the facts. Maybe you just made an honest mistake or there was an accident. Give yourself (and others) the benefit of the doubt. Wrestling with the ways in which you somehow didn’t do enough or could’ve controlled yourself or the situation differently has no upside. You will never know and you keep yourself stuck with this line of thinking.
Bryon Katie said it best: “when you argue with reality, you lose, but only 100% of the time.” The past is done. You cannot change it, so there is no point spending any time or energy on wishing it was different. There is nothing to gain from this line of thinking. However, with acceptance, you acknowledge it happened and now you focus on what you do next. What did you learn? How do you incorporate these lessons? What is your next best step? Spend more time focused on your future and learn to leave the past behind.
This line of thinking is less about letting yourself (or others) off the hook as it is not wasting your time and energy on something useless, like arguing with something in your past you can’t change. You are better off using your time and energy to be future-focussed and where you want to go from here. Believe that you will do better and that at any given moment you are doing the best you can. Take some time each day to reflect on ways you can make today better than yesterday. Reflect on the lessons you’ve learned. Decide that you are going to find ways to live your best life, and to do so in joy, love and peace.
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