By Timothy Arends
Some may scoff at the title of this article. “Worry about the past? Who would be fool enough to do that? Now, worrying about the future, that’s another matter. You can do something about the future. But you can’t do anything about the past.”
It’s true that worrying about the past is foolish. But is worrying about the future any less so? Most of the things we worry about never come to pass. And if they do, worrying doesn’t help them any. Planning, preparing, analyzing, yes, but worrying? No. No type of worry is truly rational.
But this article concerns worrying about the past. Why would anybody do that? Quite often the worry is about some faux pas, or some perceived faux pas, that one has committed in the past. “That was a really dumb thing I said. How could I be so stupid? Why can’t I ever think of the right things to say?”
This, I suspect, is a very common trait of shy people, to constantly agonize and chew over and stew over perceived social blunders one has just made. Naturally, this can make shyness worse, because if every time you try to initiate a social interaction and you don’t perform perfectly, and you then punish and berate and chastise yourself for any perceived mistakes, you will decrease your chances of even making an effort in the future.
This is a terrible form of “negative reinforcement.” You are verbally or mentally chastising yourself for what is otherwise desirable behavior, reaching out and making the effort to connect with another person.
Perhaps a negative thought keeps impinging itself into your mind. You keep trying to put it out and it keeps popping back up again, like a wicked jack-in-the-box from an old horror movie. I call this “death by a thousand stings.” That nasty little negative thought is constantly buzzing around your head and attacking you from time to time despite your best efforts to shoo it away. Is it any wonder that shy people are often reluctant to even make any effort to be more outgoing in the future?
Perhaps the unconscious rationale for this kind of behavior is that, by analyzing your perceived mistakes, you think you make it less likely for yourself to commit the same error again in the future. But there’s a difference between calmly and rationally analyzing your mistakes and resolving not to repeat them, and constantly obsessing and worrying and stewing over your perceived errors. If the latter does keep you from making any mistakes in the future, it will only be by squelching any desire on your part to even make any effort next time! After all, if you don’t try, you can’t fail.
As Dale Carnegie once put it, “You can’t saw sawdust.” To put it another way, “don’t cry over spilled milk.” An old cliche? Perhaps. But a cliche is only something that was well said in the first place. To quote Carnegie, “These hackneyed proverbs contain the very essence of the distilled wisdom of all ages.”
I speak from experience, because I have done it all myself. I’ve worried and I’ve agonized and I’ve obsessed and I’ve stewed over many a perceived “dumb mistake” or faux pas that I committed, sometimes years earlier!
“I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t have said that. Why did I stick my foot in my mouth? Why am I so stupid? Why can’t I ever learn?
Terrible, terrible, terrible! Why torment oneself so? If we make a mistake, why can’t we simply acknowledge the mistake, resolve to do better in the future, and then drop it?
How do you keep yourself from worrying excessively about things that are over and done with?
The first thing to understand and accept is that, if you’re the type of person who suffers from obsessive thoughts, these negative thoughts are going to enter your mind from time to time. These thoughts flow from the subconscious mind and they are a natural part of the thinking process.
Is the subconscious mind our enemy? No. But you must understand that the subconscious is constantly processing information and data that is flowing from the other part of the mind, the conscious.
The subconscious, in processing, analyzing, and comparing information that is constantly entering it from the conscious mind and your senses will sometimes bring up a connection that reminds you of a perceived mistake that you have made in the past. This happens automatically and naturally and is based on the lines of interrelation that exist between all subjects. It is how you deal with these random and potentially negative thoughts that determine how they affect you.
So the key to dealing with these negative thoughts is not by trying to keep them from popping into the mind in the first place, but how you handle them after they have done so.