You’ve made mistakes in the past. We all have. Some of those mistakes may have cost you money. They may have cost you opportunities for a better job or more income or to work in a field you truly love. You may have bought too much, not saved enough, made poor purchasing decisions or not prioritized your family’s financial needs properly. You may have wasted time or money or energy or all of those.
It’s time to forgive yourself for all that.
- You can’t go back and change what you majored in while you were at college. (You can go forward and educate yourself for a new field of work, even if it means returning to the university world.)
- You can’t go back and undo that credit card binge in 2001 that wrecked your finances. (You can go forward and control your spending from here on out.)
- You can’t go back and fix all the years you wasted on that dead-end low-income job. (You can go forward and pursue a meaningful career that makes you happy and pays you what you’re worth.)
- You can’t go back and not marry that person that led to a costly and unhappy divorce. (You can go forward, heal, and find a partner who loves and supports you and shares your financial goals.)
You can’t go back. You can only go forward.
Motivating Yourself With Guilt Is Like Navigating With A Mirror
Experiment time. Go find a hand mirror. Hold the mirror up in front of your face, and walking only backwards, go outside, check the mail and come back. Can you do it? Yes, probably. But you have to move slower and you’ll probably bump into things more than you would have if you’d just put down the mirror, walked normally and gone to check the mail like you do every day.
That hand mirror is your guilt. It’s the guilt you’re carrying about choosing art theory in college when you really wanted to go into nursing. It’s the credit card binge that scared you into trying to change your spending habits. It’s the years you scoffed at creating an emergency fund that bit you hard when you lost your job.
Those events are valuable, even if they weren’t pleasant, because they can be the catalysts that spur you to decide to strive for something better. Of course, deciding to do better and actually changing for the better are two very different things. Changing can take hard work, hard decisions, and sacrifice, and you have to find a source of mental and emotional fuel to keep yourself going down that road until you’re able to create the future you want.
All too often, we try to pigeonhole our guilt into serving as that fuel. We tell ourselves, “I screwed up. If I don’t do better, bad things will happen.”
“I married the wrong person. If I don’t find better partners, I’ll never be happy.”
“I passed up a great opportunity. If I’m not more proactive, I’ll never be successful.”
On the surface, these seem like good motivating thoughts. They establish something you want to be better at — finding better partners, being more proactive — and they can certainly drive you towards those goals, for a while. The problem with using guilt to fuel your desire to change is that guilt inherently looks backwards. Guilt’s eye is focused in on the past.
Here are two statements I want you to think about.
- Moving forward, I want to do better because I screwed up in the past.
- Moving forward, I want to do better because I want a stronger financial future.
Do you see the difference? You can’t go back. You can only go forward. That’s just sort of how the progress of time works. And if you’re moving forward (you are), shouldn’t you be doing it looking towards the place you’re going? Or would you rather pick up the hand mirror and try to find your way there looking behind you?
Point Yourself In The Right Direction
You forgive yourself when you take your guilt and turn it around to face the future. It doesn’t have to be a very big change in your thinking. Compare these pairs of statements:
- Guilty thinking: I picked a major that hasn’t helped me achieve my career goals. If I don’t learn new skills, I’ll never land my dream job.
- Forward thinking: I picked a major that hasn’t helped me achieve my career goals. That’s okay. I’m going to acquire new education and new skills so that I can land my dream job in the future.
- Guilty thinking: I wrecked my credit by binge shopping. If I don’t control my desires, I’ll never have enough money to buy a house.
- Forward thinking: I wrecked my credit by binge shopping. That’s okay. So I can buy the house I want, I’m going to learn to control my desires.
- Guilty thinking: I didn’t save for emergencies and it hurt my family. If I don’t start saving now, we’ll suffer the next time an emergency comes up.
- Forward thinking: I didn’t save for emergencies and it hurt my family. That’s okay. Every month, I’m going to put away some money to make sure we’re prepared for any future emergencies.
See the difference? When you’re looking forward, you’re still acknowledging the mistakes you made and the effects they had on you. They’re still important. But you’re also declaring that it’s okaythat you made those mistakes. You’ve learned things from those mistakes. Without them, you wouldn’t be working towards achieving something better. And then you orient yourself towards the future where that something better exists, so you’re looking and moving in the same direction.
This simple change of language and perspective turns you around so you’re looking towards the future you are building. You’ll get there much faster if you can see where you’re going.
Photo by Paul Sableman.