How many of us are living in the shadows of our past? Are we looking forward or constantly turning our heads to peer back at what had already happened?
It’s important to learn from history to inform our current and future decisions. But most of us — myself included, at times — allow spilt milk to affect us, although we know very well that’s counterproductive.
Why is it so hard, then, to just forget the past and focus on the present and future?
For me, it’s the judgment of others, the internal monologue whenever unpleasant memories resurface, and the fear of failure and disappointing those who care about us.
Let me share some personal stories and the thought processes that helped me overcome some of these obstacles, and hopefully, they’ll help you too.
More than a decade ago when I was still in Secondary school, I would never have imagined publishing my writing, conversations with a friend or even voice recordings of myself speaking in a foreign language online (granted, my audience is small).
I could barely form a grammatically acceptable sentence, speak without stuttering, let alone hold a conversation in English or Mandarin, which are my native languages.
I had trouble communicating, but as everyone knows, the only way to get better at communicating is to keep doing it with other people and learn and practise.
It was the judgment of others, though, that held me back. I was afraid to fumble in front of anyone outside of my comfort zone, and naturally, I stifled my improvement.
After numerous knocks in the head and bangs in the wall, I finally shelved the ego away. Many would say it’s shyness or nervousness when really, it’s just the ego. We’re afraid to look bad in front of others and be judged. That’s our ego at play.
I stopped thinking of what others will think of me communicating like a Primary school kid when I was in Polytechnic and focused on what I wanted to achieve — to become a better communicator, in writing, speaking, and understanding.
Of course, the journey wasn’t as easy as just focusing on the goal. We all need to face our internal monologue every time we make a new attempt at betterment. One of my favourite writers on Medium explained internal monologue briefly here.
What if I make a serious mistake that could waste all my efforts so far? What if I offend someone? What if at the end of the journey, I don’t improve at all? And many more “what ifs”.
Without being too scientific and detailed about “internal monologue”, “monkey brain”, “animal brain”, or any other terms to bore you, it’s basically the voice in our heads.
It’s the culprit for many things: snoozing the morning alarm, eating that chocolate bar, scrolling through the social media feed instead of reading a mind-expanding article, or playing the next episode of a Netflix series at 12am on a weekday.
For us who are striving to get closer to our goal, our internal monologue often tries to persuade us not to put ourselves in uncomfortable positions, based on past experiences above all. It defaults to a state of ease, one that favours stagnation over change.
This is where we can acknowledge the thoughts of fear and procrastination, but not succumb to them. Easier said than done? Yes. For me, I just use these thoughts as indicators of opportunities to improve.
So whenever internal monologue hits me before a calculated decision, I use it to fuel my actions. “I shouldn’t do this because I might embarrass myself.” All the more I should do it!
For most, overcoming judgment of others and internal monologue is hardly half the battle. The biggest challenge is the fear of disappointing those who put their trust and faith in us. What could be worse than seeing the disheartened face of a loved one?
Especially when our loved ones know our past very well. My parents and close friends knew too well what I was capable of regarding communication. I was average at best, and inept at worst.
Then I thought to myself, there is so much more upside if I were to put my heart to improve myself, and so little downside even if I were to fail once, twice, or thrice. Besides, there were so many worse communicators before me who improved.
Retrospectively, it might seem easy. The truth is, most hardships and unpleasantry are fleeting moments, and whenever we look back, our current challenges almost always dwarf those of the past.
People around us who love and accept us for who we are would be more than proud and glad to learn of our efforts towards betterment. Those who aren’t supportive, might just not be what we think of them; regardless, there’ll always be ones who are.
Instead of fearing to disappoint, we should worry about never trying to improve and impress those who support and love us. Better to try and regret than to regret never trying at all and think of what might have been.
Call to action
Turning our heads to always look back in time is tiring. Our eyes are at the front of our heads because we’re supposed to look forward.
Acknowledge the obstacles — judgment of others, internal monologue, and the fear of disappointing loved ones — but remember that those can only hurt us if we choose to let them.
The better decision, in the long run, is to improve — people know us for our worst, but also our best.