Our past is inseparable from our present and future. But, it can be a useful resource if we utilize it correctly.
It's only after we have fully processed our past can we live the future, and therefore, reflecting on the past can allow us to move forward. That being said, reflection can easily turn into dwelling, and there's a fine line that separates the two.
Dwelling on our past means trying to relive or fix something that’s already happened. In this case, you will not learn anything from it, and it will only negatively impact your actions and judgement. When we dwell, our present becomes a hollow shell for the past to haunt.
But reflection is different: It requires analysis without judgement. It means understanding and accepting that the past cannot be repeated or changed, while using it to provide insight into our present actions, feelings and thoughts.
When reflecting, you're thinking rationally rather than emotionally and figuring out how the facts can help you better yourself.
This may sound complicated but it's actually quite simple when played out. Let’s take, for example, the common experience of procrastination.
Say that you procrastinated the day before and didn’t get enough work done. Reflecting on this could mean realizing that you will not make the deadline without better time management. In contrast, dwelling might look like beating yourself up about it, even though that day has already passed.
When talking about the past, it’s also important to define the past. Our personal past is shaped by our memory, which changes with time. It’s not reliable in the way that facts are and shouldn’t be treated as such.
This is especially true with vivid memories. Vivid memories are heavily skewed with our own biases and emotions. When replayed in our head, they feel like reality, even if they aren’t. But the lessons we take away from these memories can be true, even if our perception of the moment is false.
Take, for example, a situation where you are embarrassed over something you said. The utterance is recalled alongside embarrassment. If this feeling is dwelled upon, it might be amplified and make you feel socially awkward. That may seem like the takeaway but that would mean our perception is true, which it isn’t.
We can’t read minds, so the “reality” of the situation is incomplete. But let’s say that you did say something that caused an unwanted reaction from others. The immediate reaction of embarrassment should be acknowledged because it's your emotion, and therefore, valid. But don't push your feelings away and don’t take them too far either.
It's true, you might feel bad because you didn't perform as well as you wanted in this specific situation. And yes, you realize what you would've liked to have said instead. You regret how the situation turned out. But you must realize: The past is the past. You can’t change it and thinking about it will only warp it more and impact your present negatively.
Ultimately, even if the situation was bad, there's nothing that can be done to fix it. Therefore, instead of internalizing these situations, the main lesson should be something akin to, “I screwed up, but I will move past this.” Given this, our memory can be a powerful tool for learning, but only if we recognize its inherent inaccuracies.
If we move forward without ever looking back, we will never know of improvement. If we continuously look back and never look forward, we will never know what it means to move on. To put it simply: Learn from the past but also learn to move on from the past. By doing both, we can better ourselves while gaining the resilience we need to live life to the fullest.