I’ll go ahead and say it: I made a lot of mistakes in my teens and early twenties. Well, let’s be honest, I make a lot of mistakes still every day. But the screw-ups of my teens and twenties were a little bigger and had more serious consequences.
Whether it was putting myself in risky situations, engaging in unhealthy relationships, or getting into trouble with the administration of my college campus, I spent a few years bouncing from one bad choice to another. Given a history like this, coupled with the fact that for the most part I’m generally older and wiser these days, it seems only logical for folks to assume I’m a little ashamed about my past.
Culturally, there seems to be a general agreement of “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it comes to potentially embarrassing things about our past. It’s all too easy to get the impression we should feel ashamed of the mistakes we’ve made. But I’m not buying into it, and here’s why.
I’ve changed a lot in the second half of my life. I’ve gone through some hard stuff, both because of my own choices and the choices of others, and it has all shaped me and formed me along the way. I’m by no means an amazing person and still have so much room to grow, but the bottom line is that I honestly like myself. I like the fact that my own hardships, struggles, ignorance, stupidity, failures, victimizations, and growing pains have brought me to where I am now.
The pain I’ve experienced (again, some by my own choices and some not) has made me a more empathetic person: I understand where people are coming from and the underlying humanity that we all have in common. My past has made me a more caring person: I genuinely want to help others avoid and/or overcome the struggles that held me back for so long. And it’s made me a less judgmental person: I’ve come to see that I can’t judge a person by their actions, because people are fascinatingly complex on the inside.
The things that I am most proud of about myself have actually been formed in me because of my past, not in spite of it. So if someone asks me about past mistakes I’ve made or the lifestyle I used to live, I have no reason to be embarrassed about it. I am proud to tell my story openly and honestly to prove to people that we don’t have to run from our past, but that if we open up our hearts and seek to learn from our mistakes, we will be far better people than if we had made every choice perfectly along the way.
For people like me with ugly stuff in their pasts, there is good news. Shame doesn’t help us at all, so there’s no use holding on to it. We can be free to acknowledge our mistakes while learning from them and making our world a better place because of how our lives have changed us from the inside out.