Why Do We Keep Looking At Pictures Of Our Past?

We often live with the images of our parents and family in our minds, which often become part of our self-image. Many of us try desperately to get past, forget or ignore our mistakes but the truth is, even though we may avoid them (and try to forget them), most of these mistakes remain with us for a lifetime, sometimes long after we are able to forget them. We may try desperately to avoid looking in the mirror but the truth is, there is nothing beautiful about the inside or out. All we see is us, and if we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror, the mirror won’t look back.

I often see patients who try to “get past and forget” their mistakes. Perhaps their parents are still angry with them or they were hurt and want to avoid facing those feelings, or they feel responsible for having caused those experiences, or they have learned that they don’t need their parents as much as they thought they did. I sometimes try to help them see that all you have to go through is a part of growing up, especially when you are a teenager — you are doing the hard work for your parents, for society and for yourself! When they can, let go of the past and move on so you can enjoy the present.

It seems that many people avoid looking at their mistakes because they believe they can only erase them with something worse or a lot more painful. What they don’t understand is, if you can’t face your mistakes, life is not worth living , even if there is a brighter tomorrow.

When I was a teenager, my parents would be angry with me for a very long time! I would try to avoid looking at them. They would even be very annoyed with my friends for seeing that I looked at them often. When my mom would get mad at her daughter, we would have to hide from her for a few hours to avoid more punishment. I always tried to forget about my mistakes, but in the end, I would make them again.

I thought these situations were the price I paid for having bad parents! I tried to forget everything I had learned about being in charge of others and about being in control of your emotions, but in the end, I had to make those mistakes.

I believe you can do much better than that!

A few years ago I was discussing my own past with a psychologist who said that it was easy for me to forget my past mistakes because I didn’t have a lot of conflict, I was in the middle of graduate school and had no deadlines. If anything came between me and my goal, I was able to forget it without losing my sense of direction. He explained that there was a large psychological concept called maldistribution of regret that he had learned a few years earlier from a psychologist who was working in East Germany.

The idea is this. If you have a lot of regrets, you are more likely than someone who doesn’t to remember mistakes you have made, even when they are really important — for example, if you committed a crime that you didn’t commit or if you harmed someone else. This means you have a strong sense of self-control and you are able to change yourself.

There have been numerous studies to explore these theories and, although some of the studies have produced contradictory results, there is solid evidence from all of them to support the idea that the process of maldistribution of regret leads some people to be able, with good intention, to forget many painful thoughts .

This does not mean we are able to forget all regrets. When I told him I’d always wanted to be a lawyer, he said that I’d have to think about what you really need in your life. And I did. But, once I got it, I made the mistake of thinking the process was over and that the only purpose was for me to have the “right” things — the big life goal. And that lead me to make the mistakes over and over.

The truth is, you aren’t going to forget everything because you are not human. You simply cannot forget that you have to do something in your life to get the things you want — that a law school is important or that marriage is right for you. And, unless you can change your thoughts, you are more likely to repeat past mistakes, over and over.