I’ve made some spectacularly bad decisions in my life, some of which have cost me dearly with the consequences. I am quick to beat myself up for having not known any better, despite the fact that what’s obvious in hindsight was clearly not evident to me when I was choosing.
It’s easy to look back at those choices and say that I would do things differently if I could go back and do it over, but the truth is that I wouldn’t have any more information or wisdom or maturity at that new moment of choice than I did the first time around and would, therefore, make the exact same choice again.
I was doing the best I could with what I had when I chose the first time, no matter how badly that choice turned out.
Several years ago, I came across a post by Oriah Mountain Dreamer on this topic that has stuck with me ever since. In it she asked, “What if you and I and every person on the planet, in this moment are doing the best we can with the inner and outer resources we have?”
Every time I step into that perspective, I find myself welling up with compassion—compassion for the younger me that chose so poorly and compassion for others in my life who have chosen words or actions that have hurt me.
This compassion doesn’t make my choices any better, nor does it excuse any damage that I have done or that others have done to me, but it does melt away my need to punish myself (or them) for poor choices. I can let go of the need to make the choice a reflection of evil and instead recognize that we are all walking wounded with blind spots and shadow selves that get in our way.
(This is not to say that all who have done damage are allowed back into my life, especially if there are no signs that their choices will be different in the future. It does, however, allow me to have compassion for them, even as I draw boundaries to protect myself. But that’s a different post for another time.)
As valuable as this discovery of compassion is, what I like best about Oriah’s post is that she goes on to point out that accepting this idea that we are all doing the best we can with what we have leads directly to the conclusion that the best response to poor choices is not punishment but better resources.
I see this over and over again in my own life. The more I beat myself up for poor choices, the more it drains my confidence that I can make good choices, which sets me up to make more poor choices. This is just as true in the little choices in life as in the big ones.
When I’m beating myself up for talking too much when I’m with a friend (something I do entirely too often), it leaves me hurting and insecure and therefore much more likely to talk too much the next time I am spending time with friends. I am much better served by learning more about what emotional issues prompted me to talk so much. That way, I can address those issues in a more productive way so I will be better equipped to listen the next time I’m with others.
Dealing with my painful emotions ahead of time, writing out the things I need to express, making sure I have enough sleep, or using physical exercise to work off intense emotions are all ways to increase my resources that will allow me to make better choices in the moment about listening well to others instead of needing to talk about myself.
As I think about the big life-changing decisions, the same things apply. I don’t always know when those choices will come, but the more I am able to deal with my shadow, heal my old wounds, find ways to meet my needs in healthy ways, and address my emotional baggage, the better I will be equipped to make better decisions when those moments do arise.
My best will only be as good as the resources at my disposal for reaching that best. That means choosing to let go of beating myself up for my previous bad choices and spending my time increasing my resources instead. This goes against our cultural norm, which prefers punishment, and it’s not what most of us are used to.
But it works.
Have you ever made decisions (big or little) that you have later regretted? If so, how do you react to those poor choices? Does that response help you make better choices in the future?
If you’ve never tried approaching those times with a spirit of looking to improve your resources instead of beating yourself up, I strongly recommend Oriah’s post on this. Her thoughts have made a big difference for me!
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