Looking Back: How Do We Judge Our Past Selves?

A recent exchange of comments with a talented blogger provoked the question of how each of us judges our past. I’m not talking about instant guilt, but indictments of older action or inaction. Multinomial offered the following account of her historical failure to say “no.” Here is a partial and edited quote:

(I sometimes failed to say) “no” to certain men who propositioned me for sex when I was homeless, desperate for a place to crash, and alone … in his home. I didn’t want to be raped again, and I didn’t want to be homeless. I didn’t want to be vulnerable, but I was.

I figured if I said “yes,” it would be quick, easy, my choice, consensual — and not rape. I regretted saying “yes.” I feared saying “no.” I wanted to say “no.” And the men weren’t entirely wrong to ask me. They were just being themselves. I didn’t want to find out if my “no” would have meant yet another rape.

I feared saying “no” then, but today I no longer fear it, and I wouldn’t say “yes” if I ever became homeless again in a vulnerable situation like that. I wished I had said “no” back then. I really did. I can only blame myself … .

Here is what I wrote back, also edited:

I’m so sorry you had to experience this.

No one, except perhaps another homeless rape victim in a similar dilemma, has the standing to judge you. Of more concern, however is your lasting judgement of yourself.

Holocaust survivors sometimes frame the post-war perspective of their tragedy in a unique way. They describe the world of “before and after,” as if surgically separated from the endless horror show in which they played the part of Untermenschen, the German word meaning “those who are less than human.”

The concentration camps were like another planet for which no one could prepare, a Kafkaesque place of choiceless choices

In the period between “fore and aft,” those trapped lost all possessions, their homes, their loved ones. Crushed together for days in railway box cars like cargo for transport, these Jews, Gypsies, and Homosexuals soon lost their names in return for tattooed numbers. Starvation, freezing, hard labor, and physical brutality rendered Hell a comparative vacation spot.

In such an inverted moral universe, the rules of civilized society are harder to apply, perhaps quaint. Yet many of the victims (and many of us) tend to use a “before and after” standard to evaluate what they did to survive.

I would say this to you, Multinomial. Be careful not to disparage the bygone self — the one who didn’t say “no” — by guidelines appropriate to the world you inhabit now.

Those who live in “normal” circumstances encounter a more moderate case of the same problem. A person of mature character is not identical with his younger persona. These two hold different valuations of money, risk, friendship, time, and more. Illness and injury, experienced or witnessed, remind them lifelong health is not promised. If lucky, perhaps the middle-aged are optimistic now; if unlucky, more pessimistic than the neophyte who went by a duplicate name.

A growing stockpile of deeds requires justification as time vanishes. Opportunities, like blocks of ice, melt away. The past resists do-overs or at least makes them more effortful. One can and must work to enhance and partake of what remains.

A single “best” choice or set of choices — fitting for all times and conditions — is an illusive thing. Growing up, for example, requires risk; age, not so much. The financial advisor suggests a more conservative approach in retirement. You can no longer easily make money if your gambles don’t pay off, he reminds you.

An old saying tells us, “Youth is wasted on the young.” Perchance the senior man who coined the phrase was correct for his place and time, but off-the-mark for his junior version: the one who challenged himself or raised hell or acted on impulse. And had great fun in the process.

So called “wise men” persist in preaching at graduation ceremonies. The tiresome message leaves the class reaching for their phones. The oration amounts to this: never trade “short pleasures for long woes,” a paraphrase of John Milton, a man whose authorship of Paradise Lost implies heavenly wisdom not even he possessed.

Julian Barnes’s mid-life protagonist in The Sense of an Ending could well counter those who disparage adventure:

We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.

Tread cautiously before you criticize another’s decisions. Without your feet in his Adidas, your derogation is unearned self-congratulations. The statement, “I wouldn’t have done that,” reveals your impoverished understanding of life. You glory in an imaginary identity from your self-appointed place on a pedestal you didn’t build.

Some desirable opportunities only come once, if at all. When two such roads appear equally inviting or necessary, the solo wayfarer is now forced to meet a traveling companion: the ghost of the road not taken. The specter will afflict him unless the wanderer befriends the wraith, permitting a measure of peace.

Satchel Paige, the fabled pitcher of baseball’s segregated past, advised: “Don’t look back, something might be gaining on you.” Such suggestions, of course, are easier to quote than follow.

Your remembering self is a curator of treasure and heartache, joy and pain. Happiness grows if he is selective, or an expert in rationalization, denial, or self-distraction. Like a masterful mechanic, his ability to readjust the rear-view mirror of your elapsed days makes him a handy tradesman.

I’m told he is in high demand, though this wizard doesn’t advertise. If you find his phone number let me know. I’ll pass it along.


The first photo is called, Meerkat Looking Behind in the Singapore Zoo, by BasileMorin. The next two are reproductions of the same statue, Lot’s Wife, by Hamo Thornycroft. The first picture of it was taken by Stephencdickson, the next by Don Macauley. Finally, Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

28 thoughts on “Looking Back: How Do We Judge Our Past Selves?

  1. I am on my way to a therapy session, but I wanted to quickly reply and say that I am deeply touched by your response. Thank you, Dr. S. More later, when I return.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. There are so many powerful messages in this one post, Dr. S. It’s hard to respond succinctly, but I’ll try. Overall, I felt comforted in knowing that I’m not alone in judging myself this way, though I really feel for Holocaust survivors and others who think back on their decisions and wonder what they “would have,” “could have,” or “should have” done. You’re right; we are in such a different place now than back then. Apart from judging our past selves, I also felt comfort in your caution about judging others. I hate being judged, yet I find myself sometimes judging others – as if to judge myself at times. When I see someone else making a similar mistake that I had made, I’d get upset at them, and then I’d get upset at myself all over again. Or sometimes I’m aloof, and I judge without knowing why I’m judging. We don’t know what it is like to be in the other’s shoes, or under what circumstances people make a choice. In all of this, I forgot what compassion felt like – until now, until reading your post. I forgot what unconditional positive regard felt like. All this time I’ve been hard on myself and others, and others have been hard on me (and probably themselves, too). If we can all just accept the fact that we make mistakes, but we can learn from them and accept the new selves we invent or co-create each and every day, life would be easier. I just want to cry happy tears – not tears of regret or self-pity, like I’ve been so used to. I just want to rest in some sense of self-forgiveness. But perhaps “forgiveness” is too harsh of a word – one that implies judgment. Rather, self-love, other-love, and compassion in general. The consequences of our mistakes and others’ are punishment enough, I’d say. There are so many beautiful and yet though-provoking quotes you mentioned here, I’m amazed yet again at how your intelligent mind can recall that which you’ve read or researched. But the quote that I most appreciate is yours: “Your remembering self is a curator of treasure and heartache, joy and pain. Happiness grows if he is selective, or an expert in rationalization, denial, or self-distraction. Like a masterful mechanic, his ability to readjust the rear-view mirror of your elapsed days makes him a handy tradesman.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Multinomial. I’m glad you could take some comfort in this. I hope there are others who will, as well.

      Liked by 3 people

      • I hope others will find comfort, too. I’m not that great of a writer, but I really admire the way you write! I also have read some other blogs on WordPress and am so impressed with (and often intimidated by) the way others write. Blogging is a skill, and I’ve not really gotten the hang of it yet. It appears that there are themes people use to write, and a certain style. Right now, I’m playing with styles – I’m playing period. It’s fun! Initially, I thought blogging was like an online diary or journal of sorts, and I was using it as a “dumping ground” to “freewrite,” if there is such a thing.

        With regards to my initial reply, I don’t know what prompted me to “confess” what I could recall about my past. I think there were a bunch of reasons mixed into one. I was initially embarrassed, but I did not regret posting that reply. I wanted to finally “confess.” It has been eating me alive all these years. And I wasn’t expecting your kind response. Honestly, I thought it was going to be a response about the “me too movement,” which I think you had made a separate post on that subject in the past. Or I thought it was going to be a response concerning men who sometimes take advantage of certain situations – though, in reality, don’t we all take advantage of any opportunities we might find? The truth is, a question can be answered “yes” or “no,” if close-ended. If open-ended, a question can be answered with elusiveness or verbosity. Asking the question isn’t the problem, in most cases. Answering the question, however, can be problematic when such answers are not honest or true to our real selves. When I read your post here, and your reply specifically to me, I felt really comforted and “understood” in ways that I didn’t even understand myself. I struggled so much with comparing the past to now that I failed to consider my own growth and how times and circumstances have changed. And then to even judge myself today in terms of “If I were to be homeless again, I wouldn’t make that same mistake,” I realize that maybe I would make the same mistake – I just don’t know how I’d feel (threatened, empowered, brave, or cowardice). The reality is that we can’t judge what we’d do or what others would do; science tries to predict, as if to judge, but prediction should be taken with a whole lot of caution; simply put, we don’t know what we’d feel like or what others would feel like in given situations and under given circumstances. We can’t judge. We can understand. We can attempt to find solutions. We can even attempt to prevent problems in the future. We can take responsibility. We can identify the responsibilities of others. But when it boils down to it, there’s something about understanding, compassion, and unconditional positive regard that touches the heart so deeply that such “love-like” reactions can motivate others to change in a good way. I feel the “love,” in a good way (yet, there may be a bit of transference in there, LOL). Thank you!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m happy you feel understood. I’m not one who can say he offers the world unconditional positive regard. I’ve met a few scoundrels. I’ve judged where it wasn’t necessary or helpful. I suppose I’d say my stance has become a reflective, humble scrutiny of a world that is both wondrous and broken; and the people who share that condition.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I also understood the benefits of CBT more now; I like the way you reframed the ways in which we think of our selves in before/after terms. To accept our selves now takes that level of cognitive restructuring and self-care. I’ve been beating myself up this entire time, and those thoughts only made me feel worse. Now I don’t feel so worse. If anything, I’m also understanding myself more; I misunderstood my own self all this time and didn’t realize it. It’s a relief to hear that I’m not alone. And I like how you reframed your own statement of “I’ve judged where it wasn’t necessary or helpful” with a more gentle statement of “I suppose I’d say my stance has become a reflective, humble scrutiny of a world that is both wondrous and broken; and the people who share that condition.” What I wanted to add to that is the awesome place you are at now, and how your blog truly gets at the heart of your helping people in the past and even now (via your blog, and your talents). Sometimes us clients/patients don’t give enough credit to our therapists, and I think that therapists deserve more credit than they recognize in themselves. Judgment is sometimes necessary, but I think it depends on the circumstances. There were times that I needed judgment in treatment, so that I could stop doing treatment-resistant things like avoiding conversations or intellectualizing. I do those things a lot. There are things that are hard to admit to anyone, but the silence in secrets hurt more. There’s nothing like feeling safe enough to let down our guard and share our secrets, or to be accepted after judgment has occurred, or to be given second and nth amount of chances. I think the world limits mistakes when it creates sanctions; when the world accepts that mistakes can be a learning tool, then we have hope for learning, peace building, rehabilitation, and healing. But yeah, there are a few “scoundrels” out there. I’m still scared of them.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. PS: I really like the artwork you chose for this article. It is very fitting, given that all the figures are looking back. I just want to hug the beaver-looking animal though. Hee hee.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Dr. Stein, I very much enjoyed this post, along with the illustrations.

    Multinomial, I agree with you…. “The consequences of our mistakes and others’ are punishment enough”. And sometimes a mistake isn’t really a mistake — it’s about doing one’s best to survive in a terrible situation.

    There’s also the saying that hindsight is 20/20: the view looking back, when you can see how consequences have played out, is an entirely different picture than when you’re in the situation and can barely gauge all the nuances of the ever-changing present, let alone peer into the future.

    Considering how my life could have unfolded, I’ve been pretty fortunate. But still, the older I get (68 now), the more I see that life is really hard. Everybody struggles. And aging has its own special struggles. By and large, I think most of us do our best to muddle through — to survive hardship, to steer our boat when we can grasp the tiller and when the sails aren’t tattered, and to make use of opportunities when they come.

    I try to keep all this in mind when I’m looking back on my own mistakes and others’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • P.S….. To continue the nautical metaphor, I also like this saying, “”Life is like stepping onto a boat which is about to sail out to sea and sink.” (Shunryu Suzuki)

      Liked by 3 people

      • Holy Cow! Indeed, it will sink, but one hopes for some sunny days and some excitement — and a long voyage in good health until the very end.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Mary Ann. As you say, we all have our challenges and “do our best to muddle through.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mary Ann. I am afraid of aging, and I am only 44. I am in some physical pain and dealing with fatigue. I wonder if it gets worse. And I cannot help but look back at my life and miss the energetic young person and do the hindsight 20/20 thing. I do not know your struggles, but I hope that you live a long and fulfilling life. I hope we all do. And bring a life vest just in case the boat sinks. Life is mysterious and adventurous at times. There was a news article somewhere that told the story about how a dolphin rescued a man who was stranded, I believe. The exciting stuff like learning to search and rescue are also what I miss, apart from peaceful sunny sails. But I would take what Dr. Stein suggested any day now.

      Liked by 3 people

  5. My torture started the day my mother brought me home from the hospital, until I left home after college. So I can’t really look back like this. As I read, I felt it all – here is what came into my mind:
    “Here I stand: I can do no other.” Yes, Martin Luther, a hero of mine. I grew up (please forgive the oncoming pun): on a Diet of Worms.

    I am now 76, had a successful career, have wonderful children and grandchildren – and Zero close friends and Zero close lovers. More than half my life in therapy – which has saved me.

    I do sometimes think – what if I had chosen Normal Parents?

    I get sad.

    I am working now with a CPTSD expert therapist, I am considering having the courage to feel anger. Noone is around NOW who would kill me for that. Here I stand, hammering my thoughts on this WordPress Blog. Thank you all for reading. This Shaking

    “This shaking keeps me steady: I should know.”
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43333/the-waking-56d2220f25315

    Liked by 3 people

    • I am so sorry to hear about your struggles, TS. I have a hard time finding closeness in relationships, too. We may have acquaintances, family, and friends, but finding that close connection is difficult. I gave my daughter up for adoption, so I’m not even sure how to feel close as a parent (yet I love my daughter to pieces and will do anything for her, if given the opportunity). I’m sorry that you dealt with childhood torture/trauma/maltreatment. Looking back into such horrors is challenging and difficult; even I struggle with reflecting back on horrific times. Processing anger is the hardest – it’s such a stigmatized emotion that doesn’t always exact aggressive behavior like others fear, or like we ourselves fear. It’s an emotion that is scary to feel or express in a non-aggressive way, if that is even possible. I can relate to your pain, TS, and I can also say that therapy has helped me so much in these areas and beyond. It sounds like you have a good CPTSD therapist!! I often wondered why you use the name “this shaking,” and I wondered if it came from a poem or a book or a movie or something. That is interesting! I will visit the website link you provided soon. Sending safe wishes your way – multinomial.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I like Martin Luther, too! I admire that man for a non-aggressive stance toward social justice. I veer toward social justice because I’ve seen so much injustice, as I’m sure you have in all your years of “experience.” Was this experience we would have chosen for ourselves? No, especially when it comes to childhood maltreatment. We didn’t choose our parents, and in many cases, our parents didn’t choose us – especially in terms of childhood maltreatment. Parents who abuse their kids, no less torture them, are not choosing us, but rather harming us and themselves. It’s sad how that lingers on throughout time, and how our voices for justice became muffled behind the silence and hidden anger that burrowed within our broken hearts. But the fact that you can admit that here, and seek therapy, is courage enough to say that you’re not alone, and your life is certainly worth living to fullest. My hope for world peace will never cease, even when society says that world peace is not possible. There’s peace we can find within ourselves, and there’s peace, therefore, that we can find among others. I’m glad that you found some safety in your admission of “Noone is around NOW who would kill me for that [the courage to feel anger].” Feeling some sense of safety to express in words how angry you are about what happened to you, and then to find some sense of healing in the midst of that process, will hopefully bring you some closure and assurances that your life is worth so much more than what you have experienced. You may even begin to feel some sense of safety in attempting to feel close to others one day, especially with your children. I’d do anything I could now to be close to my daughter, and her adoptive mom. It’s hard though, when we have all these memories and feelings about those memories. But I know there’s a way to live harmoniously with myself and others, and therapy helped me with that. I learned to be less afraid of myself and others in therapy. I don’t know you or your struggles, but I can relate to the pain I hear in your comment. Thank you for sharing that with us. That was so brave of you to do so. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  6. This is both a beautiful post, with much to learn from, and a beautiful exchange that has been really moving, inspiring, and warming to read. Thank you Dr S, Multinomial, and ThisShaking 🙂 xxx
    And wow what a poem – I love it and thank you for introducing me through your comment and link, to a new (to me ) poem and poet 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you Life in a Bind. I enjoy reading your blog, too! This Shaking’s poetry reference is really powerful and heartfelt. I am also grateful for This Shaking’s share!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. From the male 1/3 of this trio, thank you.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Oh, Dr. Stein, to be able to relive my past with my self-knowledge of the present would be a gift from the gods!

    [Sorry to have missed your post on Jan 10th.]

    Liked by 1 person

  9. No problem re: Jan. 10. Hollywood has gotten to reliving the past before either of us, Rosaliene. Efforts to kill Hitler, for example, generally produce unintended consequences. And old men who return as young men feel awfully out of place due to their self-knowledge and maturity. For me, however, as much as I am grateful for the way things have worked out in my life thus far, I can think of other possible lives starting from scratch that might be interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I agree with your post, Dr. Stein. Would love to offer more but my sad, youthful tale I am afraid to post publicly.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Nancy. I am afraid tobpost publicly, too. That is why I hide behind my name, multinomial. I wish I were as brave as the others who publicly reveal their truths. Maybe one day I will find the courage.

      Like

      • Discretion is fine and often necessary. In this world of full frontal exposure and shameless lying by those who should be role models, some amount of self-protection is required, not a matter of cowardice.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you multinomial….I read your words and consider you to be very brave. Even with an alias I worry my story could be recognized, and the little bit I do reveal even concerns me at times.

        Liked by 2 people

    • Of course, Nancy. Understood.

      Like

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