I’m not the same person I was when I was 25. I’m not even the same as I was 15 years ago. And I’m thankful for that.
Every now and then, I meet people who I knew years ago — in college or high school — and I can tell they haven’t changed inside. They’ve coasted through the years getting older — but not getting any wiser, as far as I can tell.
If you’re going to become wiser, it’s typically because you’ve done a lot of work on yourself. For me, therapy with a good psychologist was a catalyst for change. Before that, I’d gone through half a dozen bad therapists, which taught me to appreciate the good one I found. (My experience is that most of them get into it because they’re trying to fix themselves. And that wasn’t helpful for me.)
I’ve realized recently, though, that we rarely seem to learn the lessons we need to learn in time to stop us from stumbling into heartbreak. It seems that only by screwing up in big ways — which we’ll later regret — do we have those epiphanies which give us insight.
I was thinking Sunday afternoon about all the lessons I’ve learned from past relationships — and I realize that I didn’t learn those lessons in time to save myself from heartbreak each time.
We rarely seem to figure out the really important lessons about ourselves and what we need to change until we’re in the middle of a crisis. A broken relationship of mine from nearly 15 years ago is a great example.
A serious romantic relationship had just ended. I had made decisions about that relationship which I quickly came to regret (and which confused me). When I went into my most serious round of therapy, it was because of that relationship. I needed to understand what I had done — and why I had done it.
At the time, the most important thing to me was trying to fix the relationship. The pain of what I’d put myself through — and the eagerness to fix things with the woman — were my incentives to get into therapy. I had never consciously thought until today that I probably wouldn’t have ever had the incentive to work on myself if I hadn’t been trying to recover that lost love.
(I failed at fixing that relationship. It was too late. The paradox is that I don’t regret losing her all these years later. She had a lot of growth yet to go through — and I doubt either of us would have grown so much if things hadn’t happened as they did.)
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that times of crisis have always served as the catalyst for the most important changes I’ve gone through. In fact, I’m not sure we ever get serious about figuring out what’s wrong — and how to grow from that — unless we’re in pain and need help.
Unfortunately, this also means it’s usually too late to fix the situation we’ve messed up when we finally realize what’s wrong.
In every case I can think of when I’ve had major personal growth because of a crisis, I’ve been unable to fix whatever had started the crisis. Does this mean I’d be better off not to throw myself into crisis mode and figure out what I need to learn each time?
Of course not.
I’ve made mistakes — sometimes serious ones — in all of the crises that have happened in my life. But the nice thing is that I’ve learned from each crisis — and I haven’t made the same mistake next time.
You can either spend the time and energy to grow — and developing insight about your fellow humans — or you can remain the same person you were as a young adult.
If you simply say, “Well, this is just the way I am,” and refuse to address whatever you need to learn, you’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over. Or you will make one big mistake and live out that mistake every day — for the rest of your life.
Life is richer when you gain insight and you force yourself to grow. You’ll never be perfect, but you’ll do a better job the next time you put yourself into a potential crisis.
Maybe best of all, you’ll be able to love others more fully. You’ll also be able to let yourself be loved in richer ways. And you’ll make it more likely that your future relationships are free of the pain you’ve already put yourself through.
And who knows? There might come a day when you can fix your mistakes before it’s really too late.