Existential Psychology

Wasted Years

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“The two main hazards of psychoanalysis: that it might fail, and that if it succeeds, you’ll never be able to forgive yourself for all those wasted years.”
– Mignon McLaughlin

What happens to a lot of people in therapy, especially if they start going later in life, is that they gain some important insights, which should be considered a clear sign of growth and a very good thing, yet instead of looking to the present and the future where they will be able to use these insights to effectively change their lives for the better they become despondent about all the time they wasted and everything they could have done differently if they had just known then what they know now.

Wherever you are in your life journey, don’t fall into this trap. It’s the antithesis of the mindful attitude, not to mention bitterly ironic. If you really are heartbroken over how the course of your life turned out don’t let this heartbreak make you waste the rest of your life too, compelling you to ruminate on the past instead of living as fully as you can in the present during the time you have left.

People usually experience a sense of powerlessness and a feeling of profound regret that they didn’t have their new knowledge earlier. They might start to feel guilty or embarrassed, ridiculing themselves for not having figured something out on their own then that seems so obvious now. If this happens to you it’s important to balance these very understandable emotional responses with the realization that you did the best you could with the knowledge you had. The past is gone forever and there is nothing more you can do to influence it, but you still have the opportunity to take what you have learned to direct your development in the present, regardless of how little time you think you have left.

Grieving what is lost to you is a natural and healthy part of moving on so that you can focus your full attention on the present. But just remember that any of us could die at any moment. There are no guarantees in life. Whatever mistakes you made in the past, you are here right now in the present, alive and sentient, capable of deciding how you want to live the rest of your life, and this is a gift.

Every moment that we are alive is both a moment of being and a moment of becoming. From the standpoint of self-actualization they are all weighted equally. Your development near the end of your life is every bit as valid, important, and meaningful as your development at the start, since all of us are cut off at some point on our personal continuum by death. Those of us who choose self-actualization know that the job is never finished, that if we had more time, say an extra few hundred years, we would be much different at the end of that period than we are when death takes us.

Grieve the time you wasted so that you can get closure and move on, but don’t let dwelling on what you didn’t do for yourself before get in the way of doing something for yourself now. There are many ways to derive meaning from life and there is no minimum time restraint. A life can be defined, like that of Ivan Ilyich in Dostoevsky’s classic work ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, by a very short period of time when you use it to take the profound insight you have gained to become who you really are, infusing your life with meaning.