Can’t Forgive Yourself for Mistakes?

Nothing in Your life is Wasted

By Noelle Sterne

Everything in our lives is connected. Our experiences are in front of us so we can learn from them and make better choices.

Do you find yourself too often shaking your fist at God and asking, “When, oh Lord, oh when? . . . When will I finally get published or called back? . . . When will I be able to quit my day job? . . . When will I have enough money to write or paint or design or dance full-time? . . . When will I meet someone to share life’s joys with who will support me in what I must create?” The answer to all such questions may seem illogical at best and barely palatable at worst. But it’s simple.

The Squirming Truth

Each of us, no matter how dire or sad or frustrating our circumstances, is where we want to be. I’ll be more accurate: each of us is where we need to be.

We are where we are because we need to learn certain things. And we can’t get to the next place without learning them. This principle applies to everything in life.

What does this unpalatable statement really mean? After our reflexive cry of “Unfair!” it means that everything in our lives is connected. Our experiences are in front of us so we can learn from them and make better choices. If we don’t learn, we repeat the experiences in different guises and hair colors, as you may have noticed, until we do. If you keep setting the toaster to extra dark, you’ll keep burning most pieces.

If you keep turning off the alarm and turning over, you’ll continue that frenzied rush to get to work every morning. If you keep going to auditions without continuous practice and study in acting, you’ll keep getting more silent phones than callbacks. If you keep treating everyone with a sarcastic leer, you won’t attract someone who’s really on your side.

As we learn—finally—from each experience, we’re led to the next. This is one of life’s causes and effects, and it is inescapable. Like me, you may chafe at its apparent unfairness. When I get too exasperated, I return to a poem I discovered during one of those black periods of railing at God. The poem is perfectly called “No Other Way” by Martha Smock (Fear Not! Unity Books):

Could we but see the pattern of our days,

We should discern how devious were the ways

By which we came to this, the present time . . .

We should forget the hurts, the wanderings, the fears,

The wastelands of our life, and know

That we could come no other way or grow

Into our good without these steps our feet

Found hard to take, our faith found hard to meet.

Look hard at the last three lines. They mean that whatever is now in our lives, on our desks, in our inboxes and texts, however hard it is to take, it’s supposed to be here. We need to learn its lessons.

So we can stamp our feet, curse, and fling around doing our tasks with resentment and outright hate—or we can make another decision.

This is to accept what’s in front of us with grace and gratitude and invest ourselves fully in it to get to the next step. We can make the process easier by accepting another heartening law: none of what we’re experiencing is wasted.

Every Experience Adds

When I was struggling to write regularly, I had an office job needed for survival. But I secretly felt it was beneath me. I scarcely talked to coworkers, did my work grudgingly, and found it ever more difficult to show up each morning. Then a friend, more enlightened than I, showed me a new way of looking at my job. I would never “graduate,” she said, until I began to put myself wholly into it. Only then, she said, would I learn as much from it as it had to teach.

I was a recalcitrant student. But as I gradually followed my friend’s advice, the job became more bearable. Looking back, I see how much of what I learned in that office I use today. My typing and computer skills were honed, immeasurably facilitating my editing and writing. My ability to interact with people improved, so I could more easily talk about my writing and eventually attract new business. Seeing the boss put in long hours after 5:00 o’clock spurred my discipline to write after a day’s work, so I became more able and motivated to write more. That disdained office job taught me some of the most crucial things I needed to learn to get closer to my dream.

But I still had a lot to learn. What I so fervently craved I was nowhere near ready for. Can you look at yourself honestly and admit this may be true for you? During that time of agonizing over not writing and resenting my job, what I needed was a rigorous apprenticeship to practice skills, learn discipline, admit to my own talents, and simply keep at it.

Some unlikely examples from writer colleagues: a poet who edits cookbooks transfers her skills for condensing a recipe to her terse, haiku-like poems. A novelist who’s a tech writer applies his talents for telling people how to build engines to highly detailed descriptions of his settings and characters’ idiosyncrasies. A writer who enrolled in a vocational school realized her error and dropped out after a semester. She used the experience to sell an article to a career magazine about carefully assessing yourself and your interests.

I once had a summer job at a camp and, under protest and with much sweat, was recruited to help build a cottage on the grounds. I would have much rather stayed in the air-conditioned office to type and answer phones, but in my overalls and work gloves I learned about lintels, drywall, and molly bolts. I’d never been interested in any of these things before nor did the exposure prompt me to change careers. But three years later, when I was writing a story about a couple who discovered an old house in the country and started to refurbish it, I drew on this experience. The technical terms popped easily into my mind, and I used my earlier feelings to express the wife’s frustration and disgust with the mess that surrounded her.

I could cite many other examples, from famous to unfamous but highly successful people of all kinds. They’ve got one thing in common: their delays, mistakes, and apparent wrong turns turned out to be precisely the right preparation for what they later needed and wanted to do. My resolve has often been renewed by these words, which echo Martha Smock’s poem above, of spiritual counselor Catherine Ponder (Pray and Grow Rich, Parker):

Everything moves in cycles, both in time and space. Regardless of the number of breaks that appear in the lines of your life, growth is taking place. Never fight the darkness because through it, growth takes place. The more light you turn on in your life, the quicker will be your growth.

Your Turn

Think about something you’ve learned, seen, or heard, past or current, in a situation you couldn’t get out of. Did you use it—surprisingly—later? How? How would you like to use it in the future?

If you’re resisting the idea of the overlap between a day job and an evening of following your bliss, open your mind. Wherever you work now—in a restaurant, hotel, office, retail store, school, hospital, or on a ship, plane, or train—look around. Everyone and all environments provide material and lessons for your dream work. Overheard conversations and arguments, melodies of hot-dog hawkers, the feeling of snow on your face, the rhythmic undulations of standing bus passengers trying to keep their balance. A songwriter I know got the idea for what became a hit staring at an ad while he rode the subway.

So, instead of resenting your abhorrent present, make friends with it. See what you can gain from it. Instead of rejecting your shameful past, thank it. Here’s an exercise to help you.

Your Nothing Is Wasted List

1. Allocate 10 to 15 minutes before, after, or between the many activities that occupy you and the diversions that constantly beckon. Sit in a quiet spot with paper and pen.

2. Jot down the events in your life that you consider major. These may include, for example, a childhood move to a new town, the birth of your sister, your parents’ divorce or remarriage, your departure for college, getting a certain job, winning something, losing something, going to a certain event, meeting a certain person, missing a great opportunity, making what you’ve always thought of as a giant “mistake.”

What you put down doesn’t have to be momentous or meaningful to anyone

else. Sometimes the most trivial moment can be a stupendous turning point. When I did this exercise with a friend, she wrote, “Craving a Mounds bar.” Why?

As she ran to a local newsstand to buy a quick pick-up, she literally bumped into the man who propelled her into journalism, a desire she’d craved since early adolescence. After the apologies, she discovered he was the editor of a city newspaper, and his encouragement led her to go to journalism school. When she graduated, she looked him up, and he promptly gave her a freelance assignment. She later became the feature editor on his paper.

3. When you’ve got a good list down, look at it. It doesn’t have to chronicle everything. You can always add to it later. Now that you’ve opened the door, you’ll very likely think of more things later.

4. Take a deep breath and really look at your list. Ask your mind to reveal the connections. Sometimes they’ll be prompted by looking at a relatively recent event or outcome and asking yourself, “How did I get there?”

5. Reflect more and free associate. As you quietly listen to yourself, like the journalist you’ll start to see things: “If I hadn’t done this, I wouldn’t have encountered that. If I hadn’t missed the train, I wouldn’t have met Ann. If I’d taken that job, I wouldn’t have had to develop my letter-writing skills, and I wouldn’t be writing a novel-in-letter-form now.”

6. Start numbering the items in their connective sequences. For some, the connections will be instantly obvious, like my office job to computer skills. For others, you may not immediately see the line, but as you keep looking at your list, your mind will give you more links. You’ll also begin to see obvious groupings of events—the windshield sticker of a college that led to your finding the perfect course to register for that led to your professional certificate that led to a great job that led to meeting the person you married.

7. Put your list away in a private place. No one else has to see it to question, deride, laugh, or pull it apart.

8. In a day or two, revisit your list. Many more insights will come, and you’ll uncover more relationships.

9. Acknowledge these. They’ll help you see, again, that no experience is wasted and in fact is absolutely necessary for our growth.

10. Finally, with your new knowledge and recognition, forgive yourself for all those past “wastelands,” in Smock’s words. Even if you think you’re not ready to stop blaming yourself, try it. Just repeat, “I forgive myself. No mistakes. Nothing in my life is wasted.” Repeat and repeat.

Sooner or later, as you keep saying these words, slivers of self-absolution will peek through. You’ll feel lighter, more energized, and even moments of inexplicable happiness.

You’ll look at your past anew, discover its blessings, and use their richness in all your ongoing experiences. You’ll truly know that nothing in your life is wasted.

Noelle Sterne, Ph.D. (Columbia University), author, mainstream and academic editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and spiritual counselor, has published over 400 writing craft and spiritual pieces, personal and academic essays, poems, and fiction in print and online periodicals and blog sites. Publications include Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Ruminate, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Magazine, Textbook and Academic Authors Association Blog, Two Drops of Ink, Unity Magazine, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest. In Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), Noelle helps readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. In Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) she helps doctoral candidates complete their degrees. Noelle is finally rounding the completion corner of her first novel. For more, see Noelle’s website:

Noelle’s webinar on writing appears in the Writing Gym of Textbook and Academic Authors Association: ”Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish!

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