An unclose photo of a woman with her hand on her face with her mouth open

To some degree, we’ve all been shaped by our pasts—by our disappointments, our pains, our achievements and our triumphs. There are defining moments in each of our stories, which, for better or for worse, shape the narrative of our lives.

I often reflect on the experiences that have made the greatest impact on my life and how much I have grown because of them. Yet, there are times when those same memories elicit deep shame about the person I was, and sometimes, fear I still am. From minor faults and failures to major mistakes and mishaps, all of our pasts are imperfect, and it’s important to acknowledge this. Doing so enables us to recognize the objective effects of our behavior, to take ownership of our actions and to apologize to those we need to.

The reality of the past is fixed, but our perceptions and the meaning we ascribe to them are not. Although we cannot change the truth about what we’ve done or who we’ve been, we can change our attitudes toward those facts.

In other words, how we regard the past is a choice. We can choose to allow the past to define us or we can choose to learn from it and move forward in freedom. It’s clear, of course, that there’s no advantage to the first option. So how do we achieve the latter?

We can choose to allow the past to define us or we can choose to learn from it and move forward in freedom.

Like most things in life, taking control of our stories requires time and intention. We must be able to look back at our lives and ask, “What aspects of the past do I struggle to reconcile?” and “How can I reframe how I relate to those events?” Without sufficient reflection, we won’t be able to recognize the thought patterns and behaviors that have brought us to where we are now or adjust them to align with our future goals. 

When I consider the past, countless personal failures and squandered opportunities come to mind—misguided priorities, selfish pursuits and reckless decisions. The list goes on. Yet, as much as I wish I could forget all of those mistakes, acknowledging them makes it possible to detangle the meanings I’ve attached to them. Acknowledging past mistakes helps me recognize and release their hold on my identity. 

Acknowledging past mistakes helps me recognize and release their hold on my identity. 

I am not the sum of my past decisions and neither are you. Acknowledging my past allows me to understand the meaning I’ve attached to it and move forward. No matter how imperfect our pasts are, we always have the choice to learn from them, knowing that each new decision before us is a chance to re-shape our stories.

Without examining the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. Yet, if we do consider it, then we’ll soon discover the power to see it in light of a far grander narrative. As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s past is prologue.”

How has your past influenced your present sense of self? Are there ways you have allowed past mistakes to define you?

Image via Elke Van De Velde, Darling Issue No. 21

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