Sometimes I just want to kick myself. Why did I do that? I knew better. As I reflect on my life, there have been countless times I’ve wished that I could relive a moment and have made a wiser decision. I could have saved myself a lot of heartache and pain. Unfortunately, life does not work like that. We can only move forward; we must learn from our past to create a different future. So, why DO we screw up so much in our twenties?
Blame Your Brain
While it is very important to take accountability for your actions, don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes. The part of the brain that is responsible for judgement and decision making, the prefrontal cortex, isn’t fully developed until your mid-twenties, sometimes even thirties. Instead of processing information with the rational part of the brain, people in their twenties tend to think with their amygdala, the emotional part of the brain. Yes– those of you over 30 and reading this, I regret to inform you that there is no excuse for your poor decision making. Your brain knows better!
What does all of this mean? It means that we don’t fully think about the consequences of a decision prior to making it. We are much more likely to be impulsive. Now it’s starting to make a little more sense, right? We aren’t wired to be our most responsible versions of ourselves yet. It’s biology. Furthermore, there has been extensive research on the detrimental impacts that alcohol has on the development of the prefrontal cortex. Yes, all that drinking that we did in college was harmful to more than just our livers. Oops.
So, how do our immature boozed up brains affect our decision making abilities? Well, they interfere with our prediction error signals. A prediction error signal happens when we expect to get some type of reward such as money, sex, praise, etc., but instead, we don’t receive anything or maybe even receive a negative result. The brain should process the disappointment as a prediction error. Prediction errors are how we learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them. But when the prediction error pathway is not functioning up to par, the result is that we continue making the same choices that garner no reward because we are unable to learn the lesson from our previous mistakes.
We’re Foolish Optimists
The definition of an optimist is someone who has a tendency to look on the more favorable side of events and to expect the most favorable outcome. Being optimistic is a remarkable trait to have because it keeps your mind and mood in a positive state. However, optimism becomes a thorn on your side when you make the same choices that have historically given you grief and misery. You continue making them because you hope “it’ll be different this time”. In a sense, holding this type of false hope helps us justify a decision that we may know on some deeper level is not a wise one to make.
For example, staying in a relationship that isn’t healthy or right for us. We say, “I’m going to forgive him and stay because he’ll change this time”. We say, “This promise is different, he’ll follow through with it”. Sometimes, it’s just easier to believe that the same mistake will turn out differently than to step into the unknown with a new choice, moving into unchartered territory. Or maybe we’re afraid that a different decision will also lead to disappointment; and it’s just more comfortable to stay with what’s familiar, close our eyes, and hope for the best.
So What Can We Do?
How do we break these patterns and work against our young impulsive brains? The first step is identifying that we have these patterns and acknowledging that we make mistakes sometimes when we know better. But it’s also important to forgive ourselves and accept ourselves for who we are: human beings. We all make mistakes, and sometimes yes, we consciously make a bad decision; but, we are not perfect. We are human and we have flaws. Nevertheless, we are on this planet to learn and grow not only from each other, but from ourselves.
You will never be able to move on with your life if you don’t forgive yourself for your past mistakes. And as much grief and pain your previous mistakes may have given you, you are now wiser and stronger for them. You can expect to make a lot more mistakes in your life. But, I’m hoping that this post shows you that your mistakes and your failures are not in vain, if you just remember that you can learn from them.