What Makes Us Cringe at Our Past Mistakes?

The only girlfriend I ever had was with me for three months in the summer of 2013. During this time, I learned how to drive before formally obtaining my operator’s license in the upcoming fall. As practice, my father would ride shotgun and accompany me to my girlfriend’s apartment to pick her up, checking to see that I did not exceed the speed limit, drove with my hands 10 and 2 on the wheel, changed lanes when appropriate, and stayed focused on the road at all times.

The drive to her apartment went smoothly, but coming back from it, I made an error of judgment that I believe factored into my girlfriend’s decision to agree to a break up with me: I slammed on the breaks at a stoplight too late, and wound up in the middle of the intersection while the light was red! “GO, GO, GO!!!!!!!!!” my dad screamed. I proceeded to drive past the stoplight, perturbed, embarrassed, and emotionally scarred. I would remember this moment forever.

I could tell dozens more of these cringe-filled stories. One that stands out in my mind is the time when I turned left at a “Cross Traffic Does Not Stop” sign just before a car coming from my right passed through the intersection, nearly causing a devastating accident.

At another time, I was attending a swimming lesson and projectile vomited for five minutes straight from physically overexerting myself. It was so bad my instructor cancelled the lesson, and shut down the school’s natatorium for the entire rest of the day to clean up the mess I left.

Finally, I visited my friend, Lawrence, at his new house in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida. Lawrence and his parents assumed that I would only be visiting for five or six days, but little did they realize that I wasn’t booked to leave until the end of July, which was a whole three weeks away. And so Lawrence’s family grew increasingly exasperated with this sixth mouth to feed, while Lawrence himself couldn’t wait until I was on my way home.

You might be wondering why I opened up about such embarrassing moments if most normal people would’ve put the seal on them a long time ago, never to become public knowledge. You’d think that I take very little if any pleasure in divulging sensitive information about myself that illuminates my weaknesses and stains my past. But that right there is the crux of the discomfort (and perhaps yours, too): If I never learn how to talk about those moments of weakness, those stains on my past, they’ll remain exactly that. Consequently, I’ll forever view them from a perspective of corrosive negativity.

I’m here today to argue in favor of appreciating those awkward slip-ups in life that, taken on their own, aren’t all that important. But built up over time, they severely damage your self-esteem and constrain your emotional intelligence.

When I asked a friend at work about what makes us cringe at our past selves, and in particular our past mistakes, he likened his answer to leveling up in a video game.

Let’s assume that you’ve reached the maximum level in an open-world role-playing game that places a strong emphasis on defeating difficult bosses and unlocking novel abilities. Upon reloading a save file from one year ago, you notice that your character has been stripped of his power—his strongest weapon is a wooden stick that you looted from a decayed corpse, his clothes are all torn up and ragged, and his only special ability is the one he unlocked by default. Like your 12 year old self, you cringe at this character because he is an inherently inferior version of the Demigod you’ve spent countless hours powering up, improving, and customizing.

On the other hand, an advantage of reloading a save from such a long time ago is that you get to do all of the things that you either overlooked or screwed up during the first play-through. Maybe you kill an optional boss that you hadn’t known existed, or complete a side-quest that you initially failed. The point is, by taking all of this accumulated knowledge and wisdom about the game and its nuances, you approach the game in ways that prove advantageous to your character’s overall strength. And so the next time he reaches the maximum level, he’ll be unstoppable.

In real life, we lack the luxury of reloading save files to correct for, improve upon, or avoid past blunders. If it were up to me, I would’ve traveled back in time and saved myself the embarrassment of stopping in the middle of a busy intersection while my girlfriend was sitting in the backseat, bearing witness to my incompetence. I would’ve looked both ways at the “Cross Traffic Does Not Stop” sign before turning left. I would’ve informed my instructor that I was feeling nauseated from swimming too many laps, and exited the pool to take a breather. And I would’ve planned my stay at Lawrence’s house for six days instead of three weeks. I would’ve also corrected for more recent errors in judgment, such as the time I accidentally signed up for a gender studies course and wasted over $300 in college tuition.

The reality is, of course, that I have to live knowing that at some point in the timeline of my existence, those cringe-inducing, abominable moments “happened” and that I can never undo them. But maybe I don’t have to, and neither do you.

Ultimately, to assuage the negative feelings associated with your past is to remind yourself that each screw up you have made is part and parcel of the much wiser person you are in the present. But however wiser and more attuned to the decision-making process than your child or teenage selves ever were, you’d be misguided in assuming that you’re no longer prone to embarrassing yourself in public, like I have done so many times before and will inevitably continue to do.

All you can hope for is that you’re a little better off tomorrow than today, may it be spiritually, physically, emotionally, or intellectually.

Categories: Lifestyle

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