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The Importance of Learning from our Past

Updated: Nov 9, 2022

Something that I believe is very important and rarely takes place with most people is to reflect and look at the past. This can be very beneficial to overall self-improvement and helping one live a healthy and meaningful life and can take place with both positive as well as negative events that have taken place (1,2,3).

Before I get too into what this means or looks like for someone I want to talk about what this is not. This is not shaming someone for decisions they have made, instead, it is more about being sure to look at what things are in our control that we could’ve done differently. I also am not at all saying that negative things such as traumas, abusive relationships, or a toxic work environment are in any way your fault. These types of things are never OK and the one that experienced these things is never the one to blame for them taking place. I think it is important though to try and see what red flags you may have missed either simply because you overlooked them or dismissed them at the time. We will go more into that moving forward.

First let’s talk about more positive experiences and why that is important to look back, reflect on, and learn from them. It is great when things seem to be going well in our life; things such as relationships that have very few arguments and you and your significant other are just clicking in a great way, maybe you’re in a good flow with work or a project you’re working on and every time you sit down you are just so productive and focused and maybe even you look forward to working on that project, or other habits, hobbies, activities are just going the way you wanted them to go. Overall you just feel very positive mentally, and physically, and you are enjoying life. This is a great place to be and most people would agree they strive to be in this type of position most of the time. Sometimes it can last for quite some time other times it is very brief. When things are going this well in our life taking time to slow down and reflect on what might be contributing to that is very important. It is very rare that things just happen to go well in our life without us doing something to help get us there. If our relationship is going well maybe we have been spending more time with our significant other, communicating more, or loving them in the way that they need to be loved (4). If we have been more focused at work or enjoying time working on projects maybe we have been taking better care of ourselves such as getting more sleep so we can be more focused at work. Or maybe we are working on a project that we are just so passionate about that we can’t wait to sit down and work on it more versus other projects when we didn’t really have anything invested into it. There are endless different examples that I could go into of this and some may or not be applicable to everyone. Instead, I recommend taking some time to slow down and think about what it means and looks like for you As what is going well in your own life.

Next, we are going to explore what you can do in order to figure out some of the things that may be going well in your life and what you are doing to contribute to it or what factors may be contributing to it. The first is simply to take time to reflect sitting down with the sole purpose to look back on the last period of your life and the things that are going well in it. If it was within a certain amount of time such as the last 2 to 4 weeks ask yourself what is been different the last two or four weeks than the last two or four months as well as what else may be leading to these changes. Take time to journal about these things, Keeping a written record of a period of our life may help us to look back on those things. I am a big fan of journaling already as it can help us cope with anxiety, stress, and depression in a healthy way (5,6) as well as find a source for this. However, if we have some kind of journal that shows different days or seasons of our life we can look back at that and see some of the changes that have taken place or things we have added or taken away from our life. Lastly, if other people are involved in our life or in this part of what is going well we can simply ask them for their input as to what things they have noticed and hear what they think has contributed to some of those things. If it is related to a romantic relationship we can ask that person what they have noticed or what you are doing better or if the relationship is doing better overall. If it is work-related we can talk to a boss or coworker. Having good friends in our life so that we can be open and honest is very important for this as well.

Often times when negative situations take place we want to move on from them very quickly, and rightfully so. Being involved in an unhealthy relationship, work environment, or a season that feels like it is full of complete stress is never fun and is sometimes harmful to our overall physical and mental health; we want to get out of it and not look back. However, if we don’t look back we can never truly learn from these things. If we were in a toxic work environment or a job that was not a great fit for us did we miss any other signs during the interview process? Were we so excited to get a new job either because our old one was just terrible or because we needed some more financial security that we didn’t see some of the obvious red flags that may have been there the whole time? When we first started dating a significant other did we dismiss some of the faults they had or things we did not agree with because we were so infatuated with the things they did have in common with you? If we are stuck in a funk that is not going well did we get there based on some of her own decisions such as coping with unhealthy substances such as alcohol, technology, or pornography? I know it can hurt to look back at some of the situations and see our own fault in some of them. However, if we do not we are very likely to get into similar situations moving forward.

The good news is that they are solutions for this that are easy to implement. Just like when looking back at positive situations We can do some of the same things to learn from a negative situation. Reflecting, journaling, keeping a record, and talking to others are important in our life. However, things we can do also set ourselves up for more positive situations. When applying for a job be sure to interview them just as much as they are interviewing you. This is something I encourage a lot of my clients to do when applying for new jobs. Ask tough questions make sure it is a good fit, and be willing to say no if your gut makes you feel uncomfortable or if you’re not liking some of the answers. I know sometimes we are really needing or wanting a new job but bouncing from one job to another can be very stressful as well as make it harder to get jobs in the future. Before we get into a romantic relationship with a significant other another activity that I encourage just about all single clients to do is to create a list of what we are wanting in a significant other. I like to divide this into three different categories. The first one is what we have to have a significant other, the second is what we prefer to have a significant other, and the third category is dealbreaker‘s in a significant other. Examples of the first category that some clients have included is having a certain religious faith, having a full-time job, or expectations as far as if they want kids or not. Examples of the second category include similar hobbies, similar dreams, and having a college degree. Examples of the last category of dealbreakers may include that person having a significant amount of debt or an addiction. Creating a list like this can be very helpful to make sure that we are more likely to find a person that may be a good fit for us. I highly encourage Individuals to create this list prior to starting the dating process so that they can find a person that matches that list instead of creating the list after they already have a person in mind and they have their own bias that gets in the way.

Having a counselor can be very beneficial to working through some of these things as well. They are an unbiased third party that is trained to help individuals learn from their past and make better decisions in the future. Unfortunately, Counseling gets a reputation as something we only go to when we are at rock bottom yet it can actually be very beneficial to do earlier on and if this is the case counseling may not have to be a long-term commitment. Sometimes hearing someone else’s perspective can help open our eyes as well as challenge us in some of the decisions we have made in the past and what we can do moving forward.

Throughout my career as a mental health counselor, I have seen this as a problem for lots of different people and I have fallen victim to it as well. It can be very beneficial to look back at seasons of our lives both the good ones and not so good and learn from them. Life is short and if we don’t take full advantage of every opportunity or situation in our life we can miss out on some great times of growth that can help us enjoy life in the long term.


1. Rafter N, Hickey A, Condell S, Conroy R, O'Connor P, Vaughan D, Williams D. Adverse events in healthcare: learning from mistakes. QJM. 2015 Apr;108(4):273-7. doi: 10.1093/qjmed/hcu145. Epub 2014 Jul 29

2. Shamasundar C. Professional's progress: Learning from life and mistakes. Indian J Psychiatry. 2006 Oct;48(4):248-50. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.31557.

3. Weinzimmer, Laurence & Esken, Candace. (2017). Learning From Mistakes: How Mistake Tolerance Positively Affects Organizational Learning and Performance. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 53. 002188631668865. 10.1177/0021886316688658.

4. Chapman, G. D. (2017). The 5 love languages: The secrete to love that last. Christian Art Publishers.

5. Smyth JM, Johnson JA, Auer BJ, Lehman E, Talamo G, Sciamanna CN. Online Positive Affect Journaling in the Improvement of Mental Distress and Well-Being in General Medical Patients With Elevated Anxiety Symptoms: A Preliminary Randomized Controlled Trial. JMIR Ment Health. 2018 Dec 10;5(4):e11290. doi: 10.2196/11290.

6. Sohal M, Singh P, Dhillon BS, Gill HS. Efficacy of journaling in the management of mental illness: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Fam Med Community Health. 2022 Mar;10(1):e001154. doi: 10.1136/fmch-2021-001154.

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