Love Your Former Self, Even If She Doesn't Make It Easy

We live in a culture obsessed with minimizing regret. Platitudes like “love like you’ve never been hurt” and “live with no regrets” are brandished across every Pinterest page, Yearbook, and coffee mug you can find. And as much as I appreciate the sentiment of trying to be at peace in the present, I’ve learned something over the years: it’s not only unrealistic to claim you haven’t made mistakes, but it’s unhealthy to not accept who you were when you made them.

For starters, a past that you’ve turned a blind eye to can have a dangerous way of sneaking up on you. As Joan Didion put it, “we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” Think of all the people you have been throughout your lifetime: 5-year-old you. 16-year-old you. 25-year-old you. They all have unique perspectives, emotional needs, and yearnings that were unmet or unfulfilled simply by nature of you being human. Your former selves have made mistakes. They didn’t know better. And they need us to hear their pain and love them unconditionally in spite of their shortcomings. Otherwise they tend to show up unannounced, demanding to be seen and loved and forgiven.

I know firsthand about former selves who are not easy to deal with. Like many people, I have a set of years in my life that I’d label as “tumultuous,” and they culminated with some regrettable behavior around the age of 21. I don’t pretend to be unique in having a rough go at my early twenties—they can be difficult years for many people. But my particular recipe for self-destruction was a combination of codependency, toxic relationships, and, as is also sometimes common at that age, excessive drinking.

I had always dealt with recurring depression and anxiety—they were like twins I toted around with me who sometimes went quiet long enough that I forgot to mother them. But during my early twenties they suddenly showed up kicking and screaming, demanding my attention, and I was ill-equipped to help them. I tried to placate them in unhealthy ways, by seeking the love of emotionally unavailable partners, making impulsive decisions, and drinking too much while trying to find the right antidepressant to take away the pain. A winning combo, for sure.

My actions resulted in consistent heartbreak, the loss of most of my friends, and two cross-country moves. The second of those moves was to Los Angeles, where I was convinced I was going to translate all the pain of the last few years into an acting career. I lasted two short months at my acting program before a post-party walk back to my apartment led to an accident: I slipped and fell down cold, cement stairs, breaking my fall with my face. My teeth punctured through my lip and blood gushed through my mouth. I was taken to the emergency room, and over the next several months had multiple surgeries to sew my lips back straight, resulting in a small, fleshy scar above my upper lip and some lovely, expensive fake teeth.

My 21-year-old self had been issued a warning by the universe: start taking care of yourself or things will only get worse. But instead of heeding the call, the person I was at the time felt so unworthy of love that this event instead became the culmination of every reason for her unworthiness. She continued to chase after the wrong things for the next few years, feeling hopeless and lost. Looking for something—anything—to save her.

When you spend so many years without control, you grow up to long for it more than anything else. Those years made me into the grown woman who insists on driving herself everywhere, who knows when it’s time to leave the party. Someone who is exceptional at small talk; not because I enjoy it, but because it’s a way to survive. Someone who has a hard time looking people in the eye; not because I think I’m better than them but because it’s too much of a risk to make contact. Someone who is up most mornings before the sunrise to run three miles because I knows it’s a healthy way to deal with life’s ups and downs.

But as time has passed, I’ve realized I can’t outrun that girl or those years. And I shouldn’t want to. I’m now a grown woman with a good job, a loving partner, and a home—I am content. But to think you can escape your former selves—the parts of you that are broken and damaged—is naïve. You don’t heal them one day and they vanish into thin air. I have tried to make them disappear, but I can’t. Because they’re not completely done teaching me. Because that 21-year-old self is not yet convinced that I love her.

But I am learning to love her. I’ve found that to really be at peace in the present, I have to occasionally seek out 21-year-old me and remind her that she is enough. I listen to her regrets and I let her cry. I let her be angry. I don’t sweep her experiences under the rug. Instead, I sit with her pain and try to make her feel holy enough that no regret is too big to confess to me. I tell her I will always be her witness.

These days, she waves hello to me in the mirror in the form of that small, fleshy scar. She sometimes hops in the car with me when a sad song comes on, or greets me at a party when I’m feeling uncomfortable and asks if I want a cigarette. I decline, but tell her I appreciate the offer. She knows she is welcome to come and go as she pleases, because she is not a ghost—she is the part of me that still needs loving. She is the part of me I must mother without judgment. Because to be consistently whole, we have to examine and love the broken parts of ourselves. Not just once in a while in a therapy session or through a Pinterest quote—but every damn day.

CONVERSATIONS