As a health and life coach, I have started to notice a trend while working with someone.
At some point, they start to seem really sad. And not for the reasons you may think. It is not because they are failing or letting themselves down. It isn’t because anything “bad” is happening at all. Quite the opposite!
What could have been?
Regret may start to seep in as they realize how their unconscious motivations and choices led them down a path that kept them swimming in circles. They may even start to fear that they will never fulfill their ultimate potential because they spent so much time seemingly idle. There’s no way to catch up.
I will start to hear them exploring what would have been possible if they had been more together, smarter, more aware; what their lives would have looked like instead of where they are today.
One specific client was starting to see big shifts in her relationship with her body and with food, and the payoffs were really exciting. She was no longer punishing herself or depriving (the disruption of a 20-year habit). She was nourishing her body out of love instead of manipulating it out of fear. She was taking bigger, bolder risks in her career and, because of that, attracting more opportunity.
What if I had this information earlier?
What if I hadn’t sabotaged myself five years ago?
What if I allowed myself to be truly vulnerable in that relationship?
What if I had handled my crap earlier?
What if I wasn’t so selfish and catty back then?
What if I hadn’t wasted time dieting for the better part of my life?
It all plays on a common theme: What if I had done things differently?
Maybe I would be starring in Hamilton!
Maybe I would be married with kids instead of single.
Maybe I would be more financially abundant.
Oftentimes, when we really look at our past, we had a dream of the way things were supposed to look by now. We had hopes and expectations that have gone unfulfilled to date.
And because we are holding on to how things could have looked if circumstances and choices were different, we lose sight of whether those things are even important to us anymore, and if they are, the recognition that we have the power to start to create that now.
“Regret is a fair–but tough–teacher.”
It is totally okay to have regrets, because they let us know when we are out of alignment with who we want to become, what qualities we want to embody, and what experiences we want to give ourselves. We can use that information toward embodying those qualities and creating those experiences in the now.
In order to become who we want to be, we have to let go of who we thought we should be by now.
Each one of us has a “ghost ship,” a ship that sails along beside us, almost transparent, of what could have been (I did not come up with this idea but think it is a beautiful analogy).
This moment right here and all the moments that have led to this moment are the only reality we know. It is just the way things are.
Quantum physics infers there are limitless alternate realities, but in terms of where we are living, it is in this shared one right here, right now. Since our shared reality involves the laws of time, we can’t go backwards and we can’t fast forward, but we can influence our future.
And right now, the moment we are in, is the only moment we have any actual power to shift the momentum and start to consciously shape that future.
Yes, we could have done things differently.
However, we could only have done things differently if we were different people then, if circumstances were different and if other people had made different choices as well.
We evolve through experience, and if we keep looking for the lessons (keeping our minds and hearts open) instead of letting past experiences harden our armor and perspectives, we are always learning more about what is possible and how to become who we want to become.
I read recently that a hammer can be used to kill or it can be used to build. I think the same is true of the past. We can use it to kill our current dreams or we can use it to build them.
Since we are only ever in the present moment, we don’t have the helicopter view of our lives yet. We don’t know how our failures or mistakes will lead us to fulfill our true potential.
Even having made seemingly terrible choices in the past, we can start to create something beautiful now from those raw materials.
So, how do we use the past to build our futures?
Stay in it only so long as it helps you in the present moment to move toward your desired future.
For each moment you wish you had done things differently, ask yourself:
What did I learn that helped me move closer to who I want to become in this life?
What did I learn that has actually held me back from becoming who I want to become?
What of those cemented beliefs from the past must I let go of to move forward?
Who and what must I forgive (this may include yourself) to move forward?
What I learned from my 10-year old self
I, too, have a ghost ship. I still have a vision of what could have been that sails along beside me some days. In it, I have a stunning Broadway and movie career with deeply challenging and rewarding work, with glamorous opening nights and impossibly chic clothes.
When I listened to my 27 year old self, she was starting to understand that this was no longer the dream. And I thank the heavens above she did, because now I’m on a path that sets my thirty four year-old heart on fire.
But I needed that 10 year old’s dream to arrive where I am right now. I couldn’t have landed in this precise circumstance – in this career, with my exact son, and my exact husband – if she hadn’t made every mistake she did.
And there is so much that I wanted at 10 years old that I now have. The picture just looks different than I thought it would, and I am so grateful for that.
Some days, when that ghost ship sails by, I have to be present with it, smile at it, and make an effort to say goodbye. It was with me for a long time and some days it really hurts, especially when I see a beautiful performance and it reminds of what could have been if I made different choice. But when I drop in, I know things are just as they should be.
For now, I’m just thankful to that dream for getting me where I am today.
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Image #1 by Erick A. Fletes
Image #4 by Alex R.