Sometimes it’s enormously difficult to look forward and focus on the tasks ahead of us, when we’re all up in our heads about opportunities we’ve missed in the past.
The other day I was sitting across from a patient who was seething that the therapeutic tasks in front of her were essentially the same tasks that were on her plate three or four years ago.
Understand, this patient is much, much better than she was when she began therapy. Even she readily admits that the “her” of today would hardly recognize the broken, hopeless person she was when she first walked through my door.
Therapy has worked— mostly because she’s invested an enormous amount of blood, sweat, and tears in the process.
However, it is the case that this patient’s current obstacles to getting to the next level in recovery look an awful lot like the obstacles that frustrated her (albeit in much more aggressive, dangerous ways) several years ago. They are obstacles many people who are struggling through recovery day by day will probably recognize: remembering what she already knows, and being willing and able to use the skills she already has when the situation calls for it.
As we discussed ways for her to incorporate the skills she’s learned in therapy into her everyday life so they have a greater chance of becoming second nature, my patient growled, “It’s the same stuff you’ve been telling me for years! I should have been doing this all along!”
I get her frustration.
Ironically, it’s often when we make new breakthroughs or learn new skills that we become most frustrated with what we “could have been doing all along.”
The thing is, though: COULD we have been doing those things all along?
I’m not completely sold on the idea that we could.
The reality is, we’re not ready to do what we’re not ready to do.
It may seem like we can do anything at any time, if we only got over our assorted mental blocks, buckled down, and just DID them. But it’s my experience that most people who aren’t doing a thing that they “should” be doing aren’t just stubborn or self-defeating.
They may simply not be ready to do the thing.
If we’re not ready to do something, no amount of self-reproach or internal bullying will make us ready.
If we weren’t ready to do something in the past, even if it was a thing that probably could have improved our lives or reduced our suffering, it does us no good to go back and belittle ourselves for not being ready.
Our past selves don’t need the scorn of our present selves.
How do you like the idea of your future self being reproachful of the “you” of right now simply because you’re not presently ready to do a thing?
We get a lot more mileage out of being compassionate toward our past self, and patient with our present self.
Your past self didn’t ask to not be ready to do the thing. He or she wasn’t trying to frustrate or stymie your present self. Chances are, your past self was as frustrated as you are now that they weren’t ready to do the thing.
Trust me: if I thought for a second there was any kind of merit to yelling at our past selves—or the past, for that matter— I’d be all over it.
But the fact is, no matter how much we yell at the past, it’s gone.
The river flows in one direction: forward.
Yelling at the rapids you’ve already navigated— or at yourself for how you navigated those rapids— will only distract you from the waterfalls and whitewater and whirlpools ahead.
Waterfalls and whitewater and whirlpools you’re way more prepared to navigate, may I add, having already braved those past rapids.
It’s normal to be frustrated with opportunities missed. It’s a drag that we weren’t able to seize them when we had the chance. It’d be awesome if we had been ready and able to do those things at the time.
Which makes it all the more imperative that we not miss any more chances to use what we know…every single day.
Subscribe to the Doc’s free weekly email newsletter, and never miss a blog or social media post!