If You Could Go Back in Time What Advice Would You Give Yourself?

You can't change or erase anything that's happened to you, but you might often wish you could tell your younger, inexperienced self some things. If you could, what would you say? Would you warn yourself of something in particular to prevent you from making certain mistakes?
If You Could Go Back in Time What Advice Would You Give Yourself?
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 18 March, 2023

Throughout your life, you’ve learned infinite things, and there are certain experiences that you wouldn’t change for the world. However, when you look in your rearview mirror, you’ll always find some minute defect or crack that you’d like to correct. They lead you to experience a kind of regret that awakens in you a subtle desire.

In fact, you’d like to go back in time, warn yourself about certain things, and whisper some advice in your ear. Of course, it can never happen. After all, time machines don’t exist. But this doesn’t stop you from constantly thinking about how you wish you could go back in time and change the past.

As a matter of fact, science has paid a great deal of attention to this subject, encouraged by mental health-associated factors. This is because some people live more in their past than their present. Far from being in tune with the here and now, where the best opportunities are located, they live anchored in yesterday. In effect, they live in a fragment of time in which nostalgia and emotional pain dwell.

“We spend our whole lives dreaming of unfulfilled wishes, remembering scars, artificially and lyingly building what we could have been.”

Mario Benedetti, Thanks for the Fire-

Man thinking about going back to the past
You often catch yourself thinking about what your life would be like if you’d known in the past what you know now.

Going back to the past

Oscar Wilde said that “the one charm about the past is that it is past”. This is undeniably true. However, the human brain seems to have an obsession with this kind of charm, because we almost always find ourselves returning there.

For example, you might spend the day remembering things like where you put your keys, how you know a certain person, thinking of a happy moment from yesterday, or regretting not having done something.

In effect, life is full of memories. But, sometimes, memories hurt and make you want to go back in time to counsel your younger self. Dr. Robin Kowalski, a professor at Clemson University (USA) investigated this proposal.

Indeed, since this desire is such a persistent one in the human being, he decided to conduct an investigation. It was published in the Journal of Social Psychology. This is the data he obtained.

We all regret something

The desire to return to the past is motivated by the weight of regret. Many people experience this feeling. Kowalski’s research was based on a survey applied to a sample of 400 people over 30 years of age who agreed on many aspects:

  • Most would like advice about missed educational opportunities, bad decisions made, money wasted, and risks not taken.
  • There was also no shortage of comments regarding relationships that they wished they’d never started. As such, warning themselves against falling in love or marrying certain people was a really widespread wish.

Think about it: you’ve come through many crossroads and, although you’ve made more than one mistake, you’ve also obtained a series of lessons that define the person you are now. Why regret what no longer makes sense or is useful in any way?

feet wishing to return to the past
If you look at the past critically, it’s because you’ve obtained valuable learning that’s made you who you are today.

If you’d like to go back in time, remember this…

Undoubtedly, there are infinite experiences that you wish had been otherwise. Indeed, everyone has regrets. In fact, we often feel that certain events that happened put a stop to our dreams and led us to different, less inspiring destinations. Moreover, these mistakes hurt.

Obviously, you can’t go back to the past, but you might feel like you want to tie up all those loose ends from yesterday and, perhaps, improve your current situation. However, would this really work? An investigation conducted by Cornell University (USA) claims that we’re more likely to regret the opportunities we missed than the mistakes we made. This feeling slightly distorts the idea of the ‘ideal self’ and makes us believe that the present is nothing more than the result of many of those doors we didn’t dare to open. If you feel like this, you should reflect on the following:

In the past, you didn’t have the experience you have now

Most of us are really critical of our past selves. For instance, you may reject the teen version of you, that somewhat impulsive young adult who failed to make the best decisions in more than one area of their life.

But, you must understand that your past self didn’t have the wisdom and experience that you have in the present. What’s more, all those mistakes from yesterday have allowed you to obtain the knowledge you have now.

Be kinder to yourself

Why go back in time if the best opportunities happen in the here and now? Why beat yourself up for every mistake and criticize yourself for every missed opportunity? If you regret every bad decision, all you do is invalidate yourself, and fuel your self-criticism and self-contempt.

Avoid doing this and look at your younger self with compassion. Moreover, understand that no one is infallible. Treat yourself with greater kindness and stop looking back to a place that no longer makes any sense or has any significance. Place your current self in the present moment, take advantage of your experience, and go for what you want.

You must develop a calmer and gentler approach to yourself and avoid exhausting and invalidating self-criticism.

What would you say to your best friend if they always regretted yesterday’s mistakes?

It’s not worth going back to the past. Nothing new grows there. It’s like a piece of burnt paper carried away by the wind. That said, sometimes, you become obsessed with holding it in your hand. In fact, sufferers of depression often focus their eyes on this plane, feeding their feelings of sadness, their grudges, and regrets.

If this sounds like you, think of what you’d say to your best friend if they were always regretting the past. What advice would you give them? What words would you say? How would you support them? Think about it, because nothing is as necessary as treating yourself in the same way as you treat those you love the most.

As an Arab proverb states, “The past has already fled, what you hope for is absent, but the present is yours…”.

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You Can’t Change the Past but the Present is in Your Hands
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You Can’t Change the Past but the Present is in Your Hands

Living in the present brings you closer to walking along the path to happiness. The past and the future are illusions that block you.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Davidai S, Gilovich T. The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion. 2018 Apr;18(3):439-452. doi: 10.1037/emo0000326. Epub 2017 May 11. PMID: 28493750.
  • Kowalski RM, McCord A. If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self. J Soc Psychol. 2020;160(1):1-20. doi: 10.1080/00224545.2019.1609401. Epub 2019 May 5. PMID: 31056014.

The contents of Exploring Your Mind are for informational and educational purposes only. They don't replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment of a professional. In the case of any doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.