How to Stop Hating Yourself for Past Mistakes
This week, my brother Stephen and I answer the question, “Is it possible to ‘blow it’ with the right person?” and share how you can turn self-loathing into a better relationship with yourself (and your future partner) . . .
Let’s Collect the Wisdom & the Treasure, Together.
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We got an email in, Matthew, from a man, 27, in Denmark. And he says, “Hi, if we can do all these things right and wrong in dating, which you address in your advice, how can it be true to say that the right person will also choose you? I was recently dumped by a girl I dated for six weeks and I have been torturing myself ever since, trying to figure out if I lost out on her because I failed to implement the advice you give on dating and flirting. Thank you so much for your wonderful work.”
What a great question. Do we know his name or he didn’t offer his name or doesn’t want to?
His name is in the subject line, but not in the email.
Okay, fair enough.
So I’m going to assume he is anonymous. I feel that gets to the crux of if there’s fate or choice in love.
I believe that this is a paradox to be managed. That we do have a choice over how we act, how we behave. But that we also . . . And of course, what that does is, it invites the kind of self-loathing and guilt and anxiety that comes from thinking we blew it. We could have done something different and we blew it. Had we done something different, we would have still had that person now. But then, of course, someone will watch me in another video and say that person, if they didn’t choose you, then they weren’t for you. And people will say, “Well, how do you manage those two ideas? Because if I’d have done something different . . . Your entire advice, and what you do, is based on this idea that we can change the results we’re getting based on changes in our behavior.”
And if there’s a right person for me, then I can’t blow it with them, right? Like, how can I blow it if they’re the right person and we match. Then is it possible to blow it with “the one”?
So firstly, it would certainly have been true that had you done something different in a relationship that you were in, you would have gotten a different result. Now, the different result may not have been the result you wanted, or it may have. It may have been that person decided they wanted to stay with you. It might be that if you did something different, they would have stayed with you for another six months before bailing, or you would have prolonged the relationship by another two years. If you didn’t have that argument that you had that day that precipitated the breakup, that argument may have happened a week later. It would have changed something, but assuming it would have changed it to the result you want, is not necessarily true, highly unlikely. So that’s the first thing, but yes, changes in behavior change the outcome.
But the idea that if only I’d have done something different is where . . . the kind of ridiculous notion. This is where we’re torturing ourselves over science fiction. You did what you did because that’s who you were then. Like, I do believe in a kind of determinism, that you were always going to do what you did then. You wishing you’d done something different is you wanting to be another human being. It’s your desire to be living in some parallel universe, because in this universe that’s not what was going to happen. You did what you did. Based on your brain chemistry, based on your experience, based on your upbringing, based on your inputs in life—societal, environmental, cultural—based on your insecurities, based on your strengths, you did what you did.
It’s also, by the way, based on your strengths that you were even in that relationship in the first place, right? Not just your weaknesses, but your strengths, is what meant you were even in that relationship. So firstly, you can’t undo something you wish you’d done differently without also unraveling all of the good things about you that have brought you the good things in your life. We don’t get to be a la cart in our wanting to strip away one piece of our DNA that says “I no longer do that thing” without changing the whole system. Wishing that we did something different is wishing to be a different person. We don’t get to do that. But that experience, having that experience, having, losing someone, going through something becomes a new input in the system that changes us in some way. And that change is what’s given us the insight now that makes us say, “I would do something different next time.” But you don’t have insight without having done certain things.
By the way, to the guy that wrote this in, it doesn’t mean by the way, don’t mistake what I’m saying with the agreement that it was just him that created that breakup. We think, “If I’d have just done . . . “ It’s like Groundhog Day, right? When Bill Murray thinks that he’s figured out how to get the girl and he keeps trying to replicate the day that she fell for him. And no matter what he does, he keeps going back, thinking that by changing something, he’s going to be able to program the result. And he can’t. It doesn’t work. He reprograms it again and again, and again, hundreds of times and nothing . . . He keeps getting the wrong result. We think if we went back and changed the thing that we think was the problem then we’d get the result we want, but that’s a lie.
And really, it only changes for him when he has become a completely different person over, essentially, years within the confines of the movie.
He is completely different as a person.
Exactly. Because getting someone is not . . . The things that we talk about . . . Steve, the big misunderstanding about what we do is that it’s just about strategies. It’s about becoming an evolved version of yourself. Because when you are, and when you do certain things, they’re congruent. They’re not a strategy in isolation. They are in a natural extension of the confidence and the self-love and the love for other people that you’ve developed. That takes time. And going back and simply changing a strategy doesn’t mean you’d get the result that you wanted. And it doesn’t mean that was everything that was wrong in the first place. She could have broken up with him for any number of reasons that he doesn’t know about, that would involve a fundamental change in his being, which he wouldn’t be willing or able to do. We have to accept that I’m only having this feeling of guilt or self-loathing or wishing I could change something . . . I’m only having that now because it happened. I wouldn’t have this insight now that makes me want to change and be able to do something different and go back. I’m only having that insight now because that thing happened. I don’t get the insight without the heartbreak. I can’t.
And you might say, “Yeah, but Matt, I knew. I knew even then I was like, ‘if I keep being jealous like this, if I keep being controlling like this, I’m going to lose this person.’ I knew that then. This isn’t new information. I knew it then. And I still did it.” Yeah, you didn’t know it enough. You knew then logically, you even knew emotionally, but not enough. Not enough to make you go, “I’m never doing this again because I can’t bear to be this way anymore.”
There’s a certain point in life where we personally get to a point of saying, “I can’t bear to be a certain way anymore. I’m unprepared, unwilling, unable to live a certain way anymore.” And there’s truth to that idea that people change when they’re ready. Not when they think it’s a good idea. And ready doesn’t mean, “I’m ready to change now.” Ready means, “I cannot be this way anymore.” And you can lose someone by doing something you even knew it would cost you this person if you kept doing it. You knew. They came home, you decided to be controlling or go on a jealous tirade or say something. And you knew, a part of you knew, even when you did it, this . . . “I know that doing this is going to create even more problems in my relationship. It’s going to make someone think I’m too much or it’s going to . . .” You knew, but you weren’t ready to change it.
Yeah. It’s like your body hasn’t caught up to your brain yet. You can, like, know how to do a great tennis serve, but you’re not ready. You haven’t actually learned and mastered that yet. You’re still figuring it out. And it’s like, like going back and being like, “Man, when I screwed up, when I was 21 with that first serious girlfriend” or “if I wasn’t that insecure mess . . . ” It’s like you were a different person then. And you had to like go through so much evolving, so many screw ups to get sick of how you were at that point.
This is the thing, like the realization we’re having now, that says, “I’m going to change” is usually a result of our heartbreaks. And I’m not just talking in love, I’m talking in any part of life. Our hearts break in many different ways in our lifetimes. Sometimes, we get to a point where something we’ve been doing to our body physically creates a trauma for us or makes us have to go through some disease. Some physical problem that wakes us up and makes us go, “Oh my God, never again. I can’t live like this anymore.” And there’s a kind of heartbreak that has led to that. There’s the heartbreak of I’ve hurt myself. There’s a heartbreak of my body doesn’t work the way that I want it to anymore as a result of what I’ve been doing to it.
There’s a loss there. Heartbreak comes in many different ways in life. And sometimes the heartbreak is just that you can get an existential heartbreak. Where you go . . . You can achieve and do all the things you think were going to make you happy in life. And none of them worked and you got to a place of heartbreak. You were heartbroken. We may not think of it like this, but it’s a kind of heartbreak, a kind of existential heartbreak. I thought all of this would make me happy. I thought if I made enough money, I thought if I outran my problems from childhood by achieving, I thought if I could just make myself popular enough in the second phase of my life or the third phase of my life, if I could make everyone love me, I thought that would work.
And none of it did. And now you’re heartbroken. You’re heartbroken. And that makes you look for something else. It makes you say, “I need something else in my life. I need to do something else. I’ve got to do things differently. I’ve got to go on a different path to find some new level of meaning, find peace somewhere else. It’s not in these things. I’m heartbroken.” You’re heartbroken, but you don’t get to that heartbreak without having done those things. It’s the heartbreak that precipitates the change. And wishing that you’d made the change before the heartbreak is like wishing that two plus two equals five. It wasn’t going to happen that way. You needed this to get to that. And so I say to this guy, your email to us, it’s not that changes in your behavior . . . For 14 years, I’ve talked about behavioral changes that can lead to more attraction, more relationships, better relationships, a better relationship with yourself . . .
It’s not that those things aren’t true. It’s not that you can’t make a change in the system that changes your outcome. That’s true. But whether you’re capable of making that change in that very moment is dependent on all of the dominoes that went before that in your life that led to this moment. And whether your brain, your mind, the way you think, the way you’re set up to make decisions or act is ready for that next domino, or maybe it’s not.
But by the way, even when, Steve, people come across us—and I know I’m getting real . . . like this is a bit heady—but when someone meets us and comes across our work, that’s a change in the system. That’s an input into the system that they may not have had if they didn’t stumble across that YouTube video.
So the very fact that they do . . . Steve, it’s like when someone says to us, “I wish I’d discovered you 20 years ago.” Right? “I wish I’d seen your videos 10 years ago.” And, “I wish I’d been doing this differently all along.” You got the input when you did, you couldn’t control that. The input came into your life when it did and that’s now introduced a change in the system when it has. But wishing that you’d have had this sooner is like, again, it’s like wishing for a change in the laws of physics. That guy emailing us, at the crux of his question is this: You say that if we do things differently, we will get a different result. And I love the empowerment that comes from that. However, in this case, my believing that equates to me hating myself. Because what it means is I could have done something different and, therefore, I am at fault for the loss of the love in my life or the love of my life.
So believing what you say, that we have agency is the same thing as hating myself for not being proactive with that agency and not doing what I could have. And what I am saying to you, sir, is that you have agency. But the agency you now have, the heightened level of agency you now have could only, for you in your life, have come from this situation that has arisen. And you wishing that you could have done something different is you wishing for a different universe because the one way you’re emailing us now, saying this, only happens with that sequence of events.
Well, I think we’ve solved not only his romantic issue, but perhaps his views on determinism and existentialism, fate and luck. I feel we’ve solved free will here.
Yeah. Heady episode, but hopefully it lands. I really hope it lands because I believe that in there is the key to self-forgiveness. One of the worst feelings in the world is when we torture ourselves over things we could have done differently. And one of the great gifts that I’m able to give myself in my more sober and wise moments is to know that younger Matthew—and by that I mean, Matthew from six months ago, a year ago, three years ago—he did what he was always going to do. And that there isn’t a world where he did something different. If it is, it’s not our world. This Matthew did what he was going to do. So the self-loathing has to be let go of, because there’s no . . . I was never going to do something different. That’s what I was going to do, because that’s what I did.
So it doesn’t mean it didn’t cost me. It doesn’t mean that there’s not pain in my life as a result of things I’ve done. It’s just I wasn’t going to do something different. I have the pain, but torturing myself for it is to wish for a different universal all together. And it’s also a lack of acknowledgement of the treasure that that pain has brought me and will bring me in my life as a result of the response I’m now having. That guy who wrote that email in . . . To wish . . . He is about to gain a whole lot of treasure in his life as a result of that breakup. Sending us this email, hearing all of this today, and all of the decisions he’s going to make as a result of that, all of the things he’s going to do, what he’ll pass onto other people, what he’ll do in his life . . . All of those things is treasure that could only have arisen out of that.
And his desire to go and change that is actually a desire to be a more ignorant person, because he wouldn’t be having this insight right now. And all of the treasure that would have come out of that insight would never come to him without it. So it’s not just wishing for a different universe. It’s wishing for a more ignorant version of ourselves. And, take heart in knowing that if you did do something different and you kept a more ignorant version of yourself, you’d be just as liable to make the same mistakes a year on in your life anyway, or six months on, or whatever. Those mistakes would still be there in waiting for you, because you wouldn’t have got the wisdom that comes from making them.
Make your mistakes early, man, and turn them into lessons. And you’re well on your way. You’re 27, make all the mistakes now and take the wisdom from it.