I mentioned recently that in going back into therapy I wasn’t interested in going through an archeological dig of my past, because I wanted to focus on cognitive tools to help me now.
For some of us, focusing on negative events and mistakes in our past – which we have no control over – is upsetting and doesn’t seem to help.
Take a relationship break-up, for example: you may find yourself constantly dwelling on what you might have done wrong, what was deficient within yourself that you couldn’t hold on to your partner . These thoughts, taken by themselves, definitely fall into the category of “It may be true- but is it helpful?”
If you’ve been dumped, that’s an unavoidable fact.
But when moving forward in life, particularly when you have important decisions to make about your future, there is evidence to suggest that revisiting past failures have an extraordinary effect on helping us make the right choices.
Researchers Wendy Joung, Beryl Hesketh, and Andrew Neal decided to look at training modules for a group of people whose decisions are literally life or death – firefighters. They wanted to see the difference in effectiveness between two different types of training: one which focused on case studies where bad decisions had been made, and another that focused on case studies where everything turned out fine.
The research paper, published in Applied Psychology back in 2006, was called “Using ‘War Stories” to Train for Adaptive Performance: Is it Better to Learn from Error or Success?’ The results found support for the idea that it is actually better to learn from mistakes than successes.
Let’s say you’re deciding to enter a new relationship, or even friendship, and you’ve been burnt in the past because it went sour.
Provided you have significant emotional distance from that past relationship or friendship, examining what went wrong for the explicit purpose of how you can avoid that in the future can be beneficial.
A couple of years back, I lost a good friend over what at the time seemed to be a trivial set of circumstances. What I didn’t realize at the time was that we were both in a state of mental distress, and as each hurtful action mounted in retaliation to the other, our relationship just deteriorated further and further, to the point where we could no longer speak.
I’m pleased to say that friendship has now been repaired, and we both now recognize at that time in our lives we each had external things going on that were affecting our behaviour toward each other. But we failed to recognize it at the time.
Lesson learned here: check your reactions in any given situation, particularly if it involves a relationship where both of you have experience of mental illness. The same commonality that bonds you can tear you apart in situations where you’re both under stress.
The Nutters Club recently published the following piece of advice on their Facebook page:
- Don’t promise when you’re happy
- Don’t reply when you’re angry
- And don’t decide when you’re sad
Three common actions that are often dictated by emotion, and can lead to tears and sadness (and not in a cool, kitsch Sons & Daughters way).
So when you’re getting a sense of déjà vu in life, think: when I was in a similar situation before, and it went bad, what could I have done to make it better? That may mean avoiding the situation completely, if it was something that was completely destructive, but learning from our mistakes is something not only essential to wellbeing – but survival.
PS. Hat tip to Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive for bringing the above research to my attention.