There is beauty in retelling a story that happened years ago: your actions can make more sense as you grow to learn more about yourself and how people work. Our ability to look back on chapters of our lives and see with clarity why we did things is so powerful. Being able to say, “Ohmigosh, that’s why I was acting so weird yesterday, I was PMSing,” or “Of course I got so sick at the fair, I was lactose intolerant!” We grow and learn things and the more we know the more compassion we can lavish on ourselves.
Hindsight, however, is not always a beautiful gift. Sometimes it is guided by the most critical parts of us and we hear it bemoan the sad, ill-informed choices we make. “How could I have broken up with him? We were so perfect together!” “What an idiot I was doing so many drugs in college, I could have gotten myself killed.” “I never should have said that to my mother, I didn’t know I’d never see her again.” Sadly, hindsight is also the seed of our deepest regrets. We punish our younger selves for being ignorant as though a person can solve an algebra problem having only learned to count. As I get older, I grow more and more prone to believe that there is no such thing as a bad choice, there are only choices that we make with the information we have and the perception of ourselves and available solutions. In the end we make decisions based on what we most value, or what we feel we deserve.
The job of hindsight is to help us choose the filter through which we view the past. When we look back at something we choose the words and sentiments we use to articulate what we estimate happened. Let’s make up a simple event and watch the power of the story we tell.
It’s 7pm and I’m pulling out of my office to head home after a long day of work. It was a terrible day full of challenges and problems. I notice that my dashboard says my tank has an estimated 35 miles left before it reaches empty. I live 18 miles from work. Ugh. I should get gas now. But I don’t want to. I’m tired and besides all the gas stations all the way home are on the left side of the road. It’s too much! I can get it when I wake up.
As you likely predicted, I woke up late the next morning without enough gas to get to work. I was forced to stop to fill up and made myself even later. Also traffic was terrible because it was ten minutes later than my normal commute and apparently that means congestion. In my haste I also spilled gas on my shoe and smelled terrible the rest of the day, giving myself a migraine.
In the minutes and hours following such an incident I have a choice. I can frame myself as an idiot who has gotten herself in trouble with her procrastination time and time again. What was I even thinking putting gas off until the morning? I wasn’t thinking. I was being lazy and ridiculous like always.
Or, I can choose to use hindsight to find reasons to be compassionate with myself. I didn’t know when I made that choice that I would oversleep. I didn’t know traffic would be this bad. I only knew that I was exhausted and just wanted to be home with my family. I made an effort to give myself what I deeply felt I needed at the time. Had I know the added stressors of the next morning I likely would have chosen differently. In fact, I would imagine that getting gas would have been almost relaxing had I done it the night before. Perhaps next time I can make a different choice. Lesson learned.
You can feel the varying emotions in just reading the inner dialogue. The first frame, the one where I’m an idiot, made me feel terrible and stupid. I had to blame someone and I was the only idiot available. I also made it a character assassination by crediting it to the fact that I am just lazy and a procrastinator. If something is a part of who we are it is much harder to correct it and adds to the reasons why we don’t deserve love and good things. My second choice to treat myself with a bit more compassion used hindsight to see things from the point of view of the version of myself who actually made the decision. I wasn’t maliciously setting myself up for failure and being defiant. I was tired. Tired people need rest and compassion. Warm and loving responses flow much more freely toward the second story than the first.
As it turns out, we make a thousand little choices daily in nearly every inner dialogue we have to either frame ourselves as competent and worthy individuals, or as scum-sucking misfits. Every inner dialogue choice we make contributes to a thought path we wear into our brains to the point that they become automatic to us. Yes, hear that. Eventually, you can automatically think you are a competent worthy individual, or a scum-sucking misfit.
Hindsight then is only a tool. It’s a magnifying glass we use to investigate the scene we have left behind. If we hand it to the critical, judgmental part of us we will turn up evidence that we are idiots. If we give it to our compassionate inner nurturer, we will uncover reasons we made the decisions we did that make sense, increase self-empathy and restore our faith in ourselves.
If you need help restoring faith in yourself and can’t wrestle your hindsight magnifier from the hands of your inner critic (and live in the CSRA) call me, maybe.