Everyone asks the question, “How did this happen to me?” Pondering the past is a crucial step in finessing the future. That is, unless the explanation of a mistake is mistaken. Too often the way we understand the past sets us up for unending repetitions of the same poor judgment and ill-advised behavior.
The problem is not making the errors. You are human, so you will make plenty. The difficulty is how we interpret them to ourselves. Better to make “new” mistakes than repeat the old ones.
I’m going to list six ways we explain minor and major blunders. I’ve tried several of these myself, so consider them “test-driven!” Perhaps you will recognize yourself and retrain your brain for the better.
- No explanation. Fooled you, didn’t I! Sometimes we find a problem too painful to think about. We then use methods of self-distraction: drugs, drinking, food, entertainment, sex, work; even self-mutilation can take one’s mind off one dilemma by substituting a new one. Others find no value in “crying over spilled milk.” They fear the fate of Lot’s wife in Genesis. Told not to look back at God’s destruction of Sodom, she took a backward glance and turned to a pillar of salt. You will learn more that is new if you sometimes reflect on the old. Trust me, you won’t be transformed into a salt shaker for doing so. A box of saltines? That’s another story.
- Someone else did this to me, dammit! Anything is possible and when disaster descends there might be a bad guy. He dumped you, he cut you off in traffic, he fired you, he said something mean, he stole, he cheated, he lied, etc. You rage or seek retribution. Usually, however, identifying the malefactor and trying to punish him won’t enlighten you. A cycle of self-consuming anger is more likely. The old Italian expression tells us, “If you want revenge you should dig two graves.”
- I am worthless and deserve what happened. Self-flagellation is not self-reflection. Rage turned inward leads to depression. Such explanations might be accompanied by a statement like, “Bad things are always happening to me, so I must be doing something bad.” Moreover, since most of us blunder, it is pretty easy to feel the proper target of divine retribution.
- Post hoc ergo propter hoc. This is a Latin phrase and Latin is a dead language, but the logical error lives. Wikipedia defines it as believing, “Since event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.” If you think the crowing of a rooster makes the sun rise you are making this mistake. Listen to the daily stock market report and you will hear a pundit describe the “cause” of the market’s movement by pointing to a reason in the day’s news cycle. A real expert would bet every nickle on the movements of stocks in advance and retire in a week. In your case, you might think you just got dumped because you came on too strong, didn’t come on strong enough, called too often, didn’t call often enough, texted too much or too little, responded to texts too fast or too slow, etc. Perhaps you are right, but the explanation might not be as directly tied to an immediately prior cause as you imagine.
- There are lots of reasons and I can’t know them all for certain. Here is the problem: we tend to think of events in a discrete fashion. Similarly, we think of our actions as having a particular beginning and a specific end. Life is not lived that way. Our time on the planet is not a matter of jumping from rock to rock, but rather of swimming in a river along with everyone else. If you were leaping from one stone to another, it might be easy to figure out where you fell off. Instead, your history is impacted by the actions of everyone you have met, who influenced you in ways you comprehend and ways you don’t. Indeed, we might extend this to generations who preceded you and the decisions they made — say, to leave their home country, marry a particular person, take one vocation over another, or even things as seemingly trivial as turning right instead of left. Turn right and this ancestor meets the love of his life, turn left and he is run down by a truck. Understood this way, your existence has been fashioned by waves beyond measurement, not just your personal choices, but all the histories of all the people in your life story. This includes your ancestors since time began, and the social, environmental, and political events of world history.
- The search for patterns. OK, one could spend the rest of a lifetime trying to figure out all the influences described in #5. What is more, little good would spring from the effort. However, if #5 gets you to look at repeated difficulties in your life, you might learn something: identifiable behavioral patterns describing your time on the planet. Maybe problems with authority, perhaps choosing partners who are self-involved, possibly being a “people-pleaser,” or persistently tending toward confrontation or avoiding it. Looking back, you might realize how long you’ve traced the same figure on the existential ice and some of the reasons why. This is one of the things therapists help with as outside observers who can sometimes recognize the forest as well as the trees.
In the end, it is not always necessary to understand exactly how repeated mistakes developed, so long as you:
- Face the extent to which the mistakes are harming you and the amount of control you can exert over them.
- Make better choices and behave differently. That is, change your patterns.
The first three ways of explaining errors usually won’t help much because they don’t lead to responsibility-taking. The fourth is an error in logic, while the fifth overwhelms people with more data than needed. Number six, however, might allow you to recognize a set of missteps you can productively address. That said, the process is not an easy one and self-recognition is humbling.
Don’t rely on me. Rather, consider the words of Isaac Asimov in I, Robot:
“It is the obvious which is so difficult to see most of the time. People say ‘It’s as plain as the nose on your face.’ But how much of the nose on your face can you see, unless someone holds a mirror up to you?”