If You Could Go Back in Time, What Would You Change?
Imagine that you could go back 20 years (or less if you’re younger than 35). What would you do?
Think of the pain and challenges that defined that period for you—heartache, loss, failure, shattered dreams, mistakes, regrets, doubts, fears.
Would you change anything?
When I asked myself this question, my first impulse was: I wouldn’t change a thing. Everything unfolded the way it was meant to be. I am today where I am because of the past.
Then I stopped, and thought:
Who am I kidding?
I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t change anything. There are major things that I would change … if I could.
Before I get into it, let me just say that I truly believe there are events that have been encoded into our DNA (fated at the hands of God, life, karma, or evolution) and these are unchangeable—no matter how hard we try.
I can’t force a company to keep me employed, or a relationship to last beyond its intended purpose. Nor can I prevent war, serious illness, or prejudice.
But I can most definitely choose not to be defined by these events. I have a choice, and yes I would’ve done a few things differently. This is where events are only probabilities (i.e. may or may not happen). And maybe I could’ve altered my reality in a way that was more beneficial to me.
So here is what I’d change.
Not fight the inevitable, and hang on to what was. I wasted so much time trying to save the un-savable.
Walk away from toxic people. I chose to ignore the signs and suffer for no reason, other than fear.
Not try to be a hero and meddle. It’s not my job to help people who didn’t want to help themselves. I ended up enabling the same selfish and destructive behaviors.
Feel the pain and not numb it. I fought with myself so much. I did whatever I could to numb the pain with more regrettable actions. And, paradoxically, I compounded the suffering. I’d allow myself to grieve and be with the pain.
Channel despair and fear into something useful. Instead of sinking deeper and deeper into despair, I’d choose one thing that I wanted to do, and work on it.
I would’ve done all of these things and more.
Would my life have turned out differently?
Probably not. But I wouldn’t have suffered as much. I do regret some of the choices I made, but I mostly regret how I felt about everything–anxiety, stress, fear, and a whole lot of apathy.
Back to the present
Hindsight is 20/20, and the past is in the past. Going back in time may feel like an exercise in futility. But it’s not. The emotional pain of the past lives with us until we face it, and deal with it. This is one way of dealing with it.
This exercise is not about regret, but more about choice.
When we relive the past, and look for areas where we could’ve made better choices, we can consider these choices today, and not repeat the past many times over, and feel more pain.
So take a moment to do the exercise. Think of this scenario if it helps.
Look at the events of your past. Imagine a movie playing with the younger you as the star, and you’re the director of the movie. What would you tell your lead actor?
Here is what I’d tell my younger self.
Lessons from the past
As the director of the present, I’d tell my past self, kindly and gently, to:
Trust more and have faith. There is nothing you could’ve done to not fail in life. Trust that life has and will always be on your side. Instead of wallowing in self-loathing and doubt, have faith in your abilities and worth. No one is more, or less, deserving than anyone else.
Embrace your inner badass. Don’t put up with situations thinking that you’re weak. You’re more powerful than any situation—even at times when you feel broken, damaged, or undeserving. Nip the abuse in the bud. You have enough strength to take care of yourself.
Don’t take things way too personally. Every little (or major) thing is not about you. Life/God is not on a mission to smite you. Failure happens; loss is inevitable. Step out of the selfish bubble of misery, and refocus on what you can do to move past the pain, not dig yourself deeper into blame and apathy. And for God’s sake:
Feel your pain. Don’t take it out on others; don’t suppress it; but just sit with it. Grieve, cry, write, meditate, or see a therapist, if you need to. Do whatever it takes to let go of the pain, instead of holding on to it as if it’s a badge of honor. It’s not.
When we look at the past, we realize that we can choose to have faith in our own abilities, and to trust the kindness of life. Whatever transpires is not going to last, so we don’t need to hold on to the pain forever and allow it to define us.
Revisiting the past allows me to make different choices. Today, the moment I notice signs of abuse or manipulation, I close the door, and move on. I don’t hang on, or take the failure as a reflection of my self-worth. Most importantly, I don’t take things that personally or that seriously. And it’s freeing beyond words.
Another way of making different choices is to travel to the future. You can use the same exercise and imagine yourself ten or twenty years in the future directing your present movie. What would you tell your present self?