Dealing with old mistakes and regrets

In this world, neither we nor any of our loved ones are likely to be perfect any time soon. We all sometimes make mistakes – sometimes even devastating ones. How can we find peace and move on in the wake of a mistake we or a loved one has made?

In this world, neither we or any of our loved ones are likely to be perfect any time soon. We are all in the process of learning and growing. In that process, we all sometimes make mistakes — sometimes even devastating ones. How can we find peace and move on in the wake of a serious mistake we or a loved one has made?

1. Recognize that our mistakes are part of the learning process

This process teaches us who we are and what we need to know as we grow in this world. For example, consider the small child learning to walk. Long before those first independent steps — with that large jubilant grin — are many tumbles and falls, big tears and cries of frustration. We comfort our babies through their tumbles — “Try it again! You’ll get it!”  We reach out our arms to them encouraging them onto their feet one more time. We know they’ll learn to walk — a step at a time, a tumble at a time. We know they’ll gradually develop strength in their little limbs, balance between their two little feet, confidence to move forward and go where they want to go.

We need to remember that principle over the whole course of life — for ourselves, our children, our spouses and others. None of us exhibit perfect performance in our first attempt at anything. We stumble, we learn, we cry — and then we get up and try again. It is important to remember to be patient with those early efforts, knowing that we often learn as much from our failures as we do from our successes. In that learning process, we can extend mercy and kindness to ourselves and our loved ones, knowing that today’s mistake is often the gateway to tomorrow’s transformation.

2. Let bygones be bygones

Once a mistake is past, let it stay in the past. Don’t keep bringing it up in the present and don’t keep projecting it into the future. Doing so unnecessarily extends the pain and disruption of the original mistake. When we keep beating ourselves or others up with repeated reminders of old mistakes, it makes it difficult to move on to a happier, more successful place.

While mistakes are an unavoidable part of the learning process, they are only part of the journey — not the destination. When we fall, we don’t need to keep remembering and obsessing about our failures. Rather, we need to get back on our feet, refocus on our desired destination and then move forward again. And we need to let others — who will also make mistakes at times — do the same.

3. Decide to forgive and let go

This is often easier said than done. We fear that if we forgive a mistake in ourselves or in someone else, it excuses the mistake and increases the likelihood that it will happen again. In contrast, forgiveness clears the slate and makes possible a rich new experience. Forgiveness helps weed the garden of our lives and families so there is room to plant happy, positive new experiences.

4. Write the story of the mistake – beginning, middle, and end

Writing provides perspective and clarity in dealing with challenging events in our lives. It allows us to see where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, what we can change and where we can go from here. Writing, by its very nature, accesses the rational parts of our minds where planning and goal-setting occur. Writing about a troubling event takes that event out of the exclusively emotional parts of our minds where the troubled memory might swirl around indefinitely, without resolution. It brings that memory instead to the reasoning part of our minds where we can consciously decide what to do with a particular mistake or learning experience. We can write about how the mistake occurred, what conditions accompanied it, what we have learned from it and what conditions we can change to avoid a repetition of that mistake in the future. Writing is one of the best and cheapest tools available to help us move beyond old pain and find our way to a more hopeful and productive condition.


Apologize to those hurt by the mistake and make things right, to the extent possible

Mistakes almost always have a hurtful impact on at least one other person — often those closest and dearest to us. To the extent possible, we must repair the wrongs and the damage created by the mistake. We should express our regret to those hurt, make a clear plan for how to correct the damage and then actively carry out that plan.

6. Give the burden to God, and trust His ongoing support and guidance

To an all-knowing God, our mistakes and those of our loved ones are no great surprise. He never set out to create perfect creatures. Rather, he gave the gift of life to his imperfect, but beloved children. Just as we stretch out our hands to the tiny toddler who has just fallen to the ground again after a few fumbling steps, so we can trust that the God of the universe stretches out his hands to us in our falls and failures. As we call encouragement to our little ones in their tumbles, so he calls encouragement to us, “Try again! Get back on your feet, learn from what you’ve just experienced, and use it to improve on the next effort. Keep going — you’ll get it!”

In applying these steps, our mistakes can be part of the education of our souls. The goal is not to avoid mistakes — it is to learn from them and then move on.

Carrie Wrigley

Carrie Maxwell Wrigley, LCSW, is a counselor in private practice, and mother of five. Visit her website for handouts and other resources on similar topics.