The following is adapted from Grappling.

We all make mistakes, but as men, we often don’t like thinking about them. After all, we pride ourselves on being right and not making mistakes. “Besides, it’s in the past,” we say. “Why bother digging it up?”

But as William Faulkner once said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The past matters, and it shapes who we are. If we don’t take the time to look at our past—to figure out why we acted a certain way and how we could have behaved differently—we will never learn from our mistakes.

Maybe you were dismissive of someone at work because of their gender or race.

Maybe you bulldozed your wife and made a family decision that backfired.

Maybe you lost your temper and yelled at your child.

While you can’t change the past, you can grapple with it so that you can better understand it and make different decisions in your present and future. Here are four steps to do just that.

#1: Prepare to Grapple

Reaching into the past sometimes requires a bit of pre-grappling. By first setting the table for grappling, you can be more productive. 

Start by reminding yourself, “This is not about me. I’m a good person.” Connect with your aspirational self, the type of person you want to be. This will allow you to lean in and say, “I made a mistake. I missed something. I’m not seeing something I overlooked. I’m trying to get it right. Not be right.”

Also use the tactic of moving your body and spending time in nature. I often like to take a long bike ride or go for a long walk in the woods to really think about things past (or present), looking at things from all angles and trusting myself. 

Grappling doesn’t have to be a solely intellectual exercise. Engaging our full beings helps awaken us. The wisdom of nature grounds us, helping us to grapple. Moving your body helps you navigate the rough spots. 

#2: Go Slow to Go Fast

When I was a basketball coach, I used a technique I call “go slow to go fast.” When teaching a basketball move, I would demonstrate it in slow motion, breaking it down in a clear, step-by-step process. “First, you move this foot here. Then you bring the ball up with your right hand. At the same time, you rotate your body.”

This can feel a bit laborious and trivial in the moment, but it proves crucial on the basketball court. It helped us nail the fundamentals first, before we began to speed up the move, repeating it over and over, getting better and better, until the point where we could do the moves quickly at game speed with a competitor in our face.

You can do the same thing when grappling with your past. Slow down. Replay each event. Look at past situations where you didn’t handle yourself in the way that you would have liked, or where the situation went wrong even though you didn’t think you did anything wrong. 

Look for opportunities to zero in on details. Ask yourself what you were feeling. What opportunities you missed. What was happening inside you, and around you. Ask yourself how you reacted: did you ignore, deny, minimize, rationalize, avoid? 

#3: Rewind Before the Mistake

As you slow down and dissect your past mistake, try rewinding to before the mistake occurred. In many cases, a mistake isn’t restricted to a single moment in time. There was a buildup that led to you making that mistake. So think also about the precipitating events. 

Part of learning is zeroing in on that uncomfortable place right before something tipped the balance. That’s the place where you can learn something new. So, rewind the tape back, re-experiencing that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing, and then look at what new information is there for you.

In the period of time prior to the mistake, what was happening? What was going on with you emotionally? Maybe some previous event or situation had made you feel powerless, or frustrated, or any number of things, and that contributed to the mistake you made.

#4: Do a Mental Do-Over

After exploring the mistake, evaluate what you could have done instead to make the situation turn out better. 

How can you reimagine the situation in the context of the person you want to be? Envision what you wish you had done and play it out in your mind. It’s important to deliberately wire in the positive alternative; otherwise, an innate negativity bias (e.g., “Why is it up to me to try so hard?”) will rear its head. 

Research shows we can actually rewire our brains and their neural pathways. Essentially, practicing being a better person in your heart and mind trains you to perform that way in your outer life. Situations will seem familiar because you have practiced them. You’ll be able to more easily act in ways that align with the person you want to be. 

By writing a new past where you have figured out what your integrity should have done, you have scripted a better you in the present and future. 

Listen to the Whispers

It is humbling to hold yourself accountable for previous mistakes, to speak them out loud instead of just silently listening to the nagging voice inside your head. But you will find it worth it because acknowledging that mistakes happened minimizes the internal impact on you. 

As Oprah Winfrey said, “I say the universe speaks to us, always, first in whispers. And a whisper in your life usually feels like, ‘Hmm, that’s odd.’ Or, ‘Hmm, that doesn’t make any sense.’ Or, ‘Hmm, is that right?’ It’s that subtle. And if you don’t pay attention to the whisper, it gets louder and louder and louder. I say it’s like getting thumped upside the head. If you don’t pay attention to that, it’s like getting a brick upside your head.”

We need to listen to these whispers. Our intuition speaks in a kind of whisper but gets louder and louder when we don’t listen. By learning to listen to the whispers, we can grapple with our mistakes before getting a brick upside the head.

For more advice on grappling with your past, you can find Grappling on Amazon.

Andrew Horning is a coach and teacher at the Hoffman Institute, an organization dedicated to transformative education, spiritual growth, and dimensional leadership for those seeking clarity in their personal and professional lives. As the creator and host of the podcast Elephant Talk, Andrew encourages couples to have courageous conversations for the sake of a deeper connection. He’s the co-host of The Hoffman Podcast, a keynote speaker, and a volunteer and former board chair for Intercambio Uniting Communities. Andrew earned his master’s degree in clinical social work from the University of Michigan and is a former licensed private-practice psychotherapist. He lives in Boulder, Colorado with his wife of nearly two decades and their two children.