People who ruminate on past mistakes often display these 12 subtle behaviors (without realizing it)

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The past is the past:

But that doesn’t mean it can’t weigh on us in a big way. 

All of us have times when past mistakes and disappointments have us feeling discouraged and even hopeless about life. But usually such times pass and we get back up and get back in the rodeo. 

That’s not the case for everyone, however. 

Some folks end up stuck fixated on past mistakes for long periods of time, dragged down like quicksand the more they get out. 

Often they try to cover up how poorly they’re doing or to act like everything is fine. 

But the signs still show:

Here’s how you can spot somebody who’s sinking in the quicksand of focusing on past mistakes… 

1) Saying sorry more than necessary

Apologies are sometimes necessary. But too many apologies are a sign of insecurity and are often tied to fixation on past mistakes. 

Those who seem to apologize all the time over almost nothing tend to be very focused on a feeling of inadequacy. 

This is often tied to mistakes and disappointments in the past that have them feeling like they are a failure. 

So they try to always please others and be “good enough” by saying sorry all the time. 

As therapist Jocelyn Hamsher notes:

“Over-apologizing is motivated by trying to manage the other person’s emotions and make them feel better, even if you weren’t the one to cause harm. It’s because you’re uncomfortable when other people aren’t happy.”

2) Slow-pedaling decisions (even small ones) 

Even small decisions become like a Supreme Court ruling for those who are stuck in the past. 

Their previous missteps haunt them and they feel frozen in a block of ice.

What if they make the wrong call this time?

What if buying this shirt will make them look like a douchebag? What if not going to the party will make their girlfriends think they’re a loser? What if buying the SUV instead of the car is going to be a mistake?

Even small decisions and also big decisions become a massive headache. 

Whatever they decide they always re-litigate it and never feel sure.

3) Looking for advice about everything

Whatever they decide or don’t decide, and whatever they are going through in the present, the past-focused individual asks far too much advice

They canvas public opinion endlessly and keep asking advice even when they don’t need it anymore. 

They rethink what they just committed to if one person disagrees with it and they have no confidence in making their own choices and living by their own rules. 

It’s as if they want to outsource responsibility for their life to somebody else. 

Subconsciously this is true:

Their inner child fears a repeat of past mistakes and is looking for a parental figure psychologically who will reassure them that everything will be fine. 

But no amount of reassurance is ever enough and it creates a vicious cycle of insecurity.

4) Planning extensively beyond what’s actually necessary

Planning matters!

But over-planning every minute detail to the point of locking out all chance of spontaneity and fun is the sign of a person who has deep control issues. 

This is often linked to deep distress over past mistakes and a burning desire not to fall back into them. 

“Over-planning increases stress. Stress causes our bodies to react in negative ways,” explains Jacklyn Janeksela.

“Cortisol levels in the bloodstream increase, androgens cause breakouts, hair loss, libido changes and other nasty symptoms surface, all proving that stress in the body is unnatural and, in some cases, it can be devastating.”

5) Being fixated on organization and order

Staying organized is a positive thing, for sure. 

But those who fixate too much on the past often take it too far. 

You may wonder if they have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or some kind of nervous issue:

They usually do. 

At the very least, they are trying to offset great unease they feel about themselves or their past by keeping everything tickety-boo. This doesn’t work, leading to an escalation in such hyper-organizational behaviors. 

6) Talking a lot about the past (even fondly)

If somebody talks about the past a lot in a positive and nostalgic way, it means they think of it as a good thing, right? 

Not necessarily!

In fact, an overly nostalgic view of the past is often a psychological indicator of somebody who has lower self-esteem and wants to “freeze” or idealize one moment or slice of time in the past. 

If they can just keep this ideal time in mind then their own past failures will fade in importance. 

7) Speaking in ways that are subtly down on themselves

Those who fixate too much on past mistakes often show it in the language and phrasing they use. 

It isn’t always obvious, but if you listen closely you’ll often notice ways they talk about themselves that are subtly self-critical and self-mocking. 

It goes beyond mild self-deprecation, although they may disguise their self-criticism as a “joke.”

But underneath these “jokes” is a recurring theme of this person feeling like they are a bad person who’s doomed to fail.

“Negative self-talk can lead to a lowered ability to see opportunities and a decreased tendency to capitalize on these opportunities,” notes Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D.

8) Seeing themselves as the problem in past setbacks

Let’s be brutally honest:

We all have times when our actions, words and behavior was a large part of the problem in past struggles, breakups and difficulties. 

But there are also many shades of gray, and even many situations where we completely overestimate how much we were to blame. 

This is how it is for those who get overly fixated on the past:

They often end up with an objectively unrealistic view of themselves as being the problem or flawed in a way that “wrecks everything.”

They feel like they are cursed or doomed to bring unhappiness, so they begin to sever ties and live in a “bubble” that will be (they think) safe and more benign. 

9) Hesitancy in trusting other people (even close friends)

Those who are fixated on past mistakes have a lot of trouble trusting people. 

This includes difficulty trusting close friends and even romantic partners. 

They worry about making a mistake again and doing the wrong thing, or not doing enough!

The problems and setbacks of the past are haunting them and it feels like the only solution is to avoid trusting anybody or getting involved at all. 

This can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Which brings me to the next point… 

10) Isolating themselves or avoiding new friendships and relationships

A person who is focused on past mistakes often suffers from deep feelings of unworthiness and fear. 

They fear failing again, or hurting somebody again, or being hurt again. 

This causes them to avoid new friendships and relationships, and often feeds into a self-destructive pattern of self-isolation and avoidance of new opportunities.

They turn down invitations and shut themselves away or park themselves in front of a screen, waiting to feel better one day. 

But instead, they start feeling more and more empty! And those mistakes of the past keep circling like vultures…

“Social isolation’s adverse health consequences range from sleeplessness to reduced immune function,” notes Tulane University.

“Loneliness is associated with higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates.”

As country singer Keith Urban also puts it: “nobody drinks alone.”

11) Physical lethargy and a generally low energy level

Fixating on the past is a form of time travel, but not in a positive or exciting way:

It drags our energy and attention to a time that’s gone by, locking that energy away and blocking it from full expression in the present.

The past clearly matters a lot. If we don’t learn from collective and individual history we will repeat it and likely much worse than previously. 

But a fixation or morbid obsession over past mistakes is something else entirely:

It’s a form of self-abuse, and it takes a toll, leaving its victim drained of energy and vitality. 

12) Feeling that others are usually doing better than them

Those who ruminate on past mistakes often have an underlying feeling that others are doing better than them. 

Love, money, spiritual development, looks, material wealth, you name it:

They have this nagging feeling that they have “missed the boat” and just aren’t ever going to be at the level or amount of fulfillment that so many others seem to have.

As Nisha Mody writes:

“Missing the boat is a fear so many of us have, especially as we get older…

Yes, external opportunities can facilitate our direction. 

But, we forget to remember that we guide it. We don’t want to miss the boat because we believe the boat holds our enoughness. 

When you are the boat, you are the one who is guiding your life. You don’t seek out that enoughness, you are that enoughness.” 


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