I’m haunted by past versions of myself. Like many of us, the last few years of my life have been littered with unwise decisions, ill-conceived words, and embarrassing moments. I can’t stop thinking about them, especially when trying to sleep. People say you should be compassionate toward the person you used to be, but all I feel is profound revulsion and shame. Sometimes I wish I could erase everyone’s memories of me from before the past seventeen seconds.
I do have positive memories of the past! But they inevitably bring up painful associations of the way I acted when I was too lonely, angry, naïve, or desperate to understand what I was doing. I’ll remember a fun party but also the ill-considered hookup that followed. I’ll remember an apartment I enjoyed living in and then the friend who used to hang out there that I had a painful falling out with. I judge my past selves for everything from their wardrobe to their poor emotional regulation. Some nights I stay up late staring at the ceiling, consumed by the fear that I’ll never be able to escape these ghosts of who I used to be.
I try to live my life in a way my future self won’t feel ashamed of, but how can I be cognizant of the mistakes I’m already making? Papi, how can I make peace with these former versions of me and stop hating them so much?
Plagued by My Past
Hey there, PMP!
Well, I have some bad news. You appear to be describing “a life,” and if that’s a problem, then you’re going to have one until you finish the game. Yes, good things happen, but also and as well — bad things. Were you hoping for a flawless run? Are you looking to start over?
In all seriousness, I understand the struggle. I have many, many landmarks of shame that I revisit when lying in bed. I’ve done plenty of things that make me cringe and wish I could ball myself up and throw myself away. It’s not a pleasant experience. But something’s being unpleasant doesn’t automatically make it a personal failure or a unique problem to be solved.
Your problem, as you astutely recognized, isn’t that you’ve made some unfortunate choices. We all have! It’s the way you’re thinking about those choices that’s the issue. To bring you some relief, what we’ve got to do is change your approach. In this lovely, illustrative letter you’ve sent me, I recognize some framing devices that I don’t think are serving you. Let’s go over those.
For one, you are choosing to imagine your past as a series of “selves” that aren’t you. You characterize them as past lives, like in Avatar. However, you have also chosen to grant them the urgency of a living, breathing person who is right in front of you. This is the worst of all worlds: These characters from your past (who are you but also not you) are making egregious, cringe-worthy errors over which you have no control, and they are making them in the present, right in front of your salad, while claiming to be you.
To my mind, this serves no purpose except to maximize torment, which I suspect is your aim, be it conscious or not. The question, then, becomes: Why would you (or your brain) be seeking to torture yourself in such a way? There’s the root of the thing, PMP! And while I can’t answer it for you, I can offer some theories.
I think if we grew up with any degree of otherness, then we’ve likely developed a certain defensive hyperawareness. It’s possible that you, like me, have an overfunded bureau in your brain that is constantly scanning for errors, seeking to course-correct to avoid repercussions for existing too loudly and incorrectly. This is just a theory!
Another, related one is, well, shame. Shame is a potent force for shaping behavior and identity. Egad, we might think when someone exhibits shameful behavior, I shan’t be one of those types! Shame can create the unspoken rules for who is and who is not part of a community: These are the acceptable behaviors that make you one of us, and these are the unacceptable behaviors that make you one of those.
The fear of being shunned, unloved, and rejected is incredibly valid nightmare fuel. It might touch on some more deeply held fears and magnify them. Maybe it’s from being bullied as a kid, or abandoned, or from feeling like you don’t have any friends. Whatever the case, stabbing yourself with all your past mistakes might feel productive in a twisted way. It might be akin to running drills: Here’s how we won’t be behaving from now on.
Again, these are merely guesses. What I can tell you with more certainty is that, while you don’t have the power to go back in time Terminator style and take your former, cringey selves out one by one, you do have a good deal of agency in how you frame your past and how you tell the story of the specific life events that make you wince.
For example, I like fashion. I love dressing up, and I have a lot of faith in my good taste! But when I try to compliment myself on this, my brain will often remind me: Aren’t you the closeted Mexican who once threw on a TAPOUT WWE tee, baggy basketball shorts, and called that a “look” in college? And the answer is, yes! Yes, I was. The visual makes me cringe. But I also think it’s funny that I did that. I think it’s camp. To me, it’s camp. To me, it’s camp.
And so, PMP, I laugh about it. I think to myself, Yes, young closeted Chicano king, wear your TAPOUT tee with the holographic Mexican flag on it! Go off! Because if I take it too seriously, it presents an irreconcilable story with the one I’m trying to tell right now: How can you say you have good taste when, as the kids on Twitter say, “this you?”
Lucky for me (and for thee), life is a more fluid project than that. And ultimately, if I’m happy with who I am right now (and I more or less am), then I have to recognize I arrived here because of those “past lives.” They were me. I am me. Even if I weren’t happy with myself at the moment, I would still get to be me. I would still get to do things differently or make changes. I’m not trapped in amber. I’m the author here. That’s pretty neat.
So have fun! Be yourself! Enter the Avatar state! Make peace with your past lives UNLESS THEY VOTED FOR RONALD REAGAN.
Con mucho amor,
Originally published on November 23, 2020.
This column first ran in John Paul Brammer’s Hola Papi newsletter, which you can subscribe to on Substack. Purchase JP Brammer’s book Hola Papi: How to Come Out in a Walmart Parking Lot and Other Life Lessons here.