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You and your younger self

Giving advice comes naturally to most of us – but have you ever given it to yourself? According to new research released by Clemson University’s Robin Kowalski and Annie McCord (2020), letting your younger self know a thing or two now can be a valuable tool in managing stress and anxiety, and growing as a person. If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

One of the most popular psychological trends of the last decade is mindfulness, or ‘living in the now’. And there is no shortage of research to suggest that focusing the mind on the present moment can be extremely beneficial for our mental wellbeing; helping us to be grateful, to have heightened experiences of positive moments, and to lessen our worry about the future. (Read more about mindfulness in our blog article, Mindfulness and EMDR.) However, much of human identity is based on past experiences, memory, and our attitudes towards ourselves. And so, it’s impossible to live a productive and fulfilled life without at least having some perspective over our past triumphs, mistakes, and learning moments. In fact, according to the research by Kowalski and McCord, paying close attention to these past events can be incredibly beneficial.

Rather than re-hashing events in our minds and dwelling on them, however, the researchers suggest that giving advice to your younger self can help to re-frame regret into learning.

Living in the past can lead us to feeling regretful about things that we might have wished to change and can have a negative impact on the way we feel about our lives and about ourselves. However, the recent research has found that re-framing regret as a learning experience can have the opposite effect and help us to feel empowered, recognise how far we’ve really come, and ensure that we make better choices in the future.

“Happy and complex adults can experience regret at the loss of a self or selves that they can no longer be, while at the same time, actively living in moment with a best possible present self,” according to the study. “Instead of being an inhibitor of future action, regret can motivate change and corrective action.” (page 2)

As we discussed in our blog article, The Power of Personal Growth and How to Tap Into It, the keys to unlocking personal growth include positive self-talk, mindfulness, getting to know yourself, and making plans. The concept of giving advice to your younger self speaks to these personal growth tools, in terms of understanding yourself, speaking positively to yourself, and re-aligning your goals with solid plans for the future you want to create.

In a series of two studies by Kowalski and McCord, participants were asked about what advice they’d give to their younger selves, as well as whether this advice would have helped to bring them closer to their ‘ideal selves’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most participant’s advice to their younger selves centred around matters of relationships, education, their general identities, money, direction and goals. The results of the study found that there was a 50/50 split in participants who felt their younger selves would be proud of the person they’d become, versus feeling disappointed.

So, what do these study results mean for you? The researchers noted that, “as any parent knows who tries to impart the life lessons they have learned to their teenage children, most of the advice we offer to our younger self has to be learned through personal experience.” So, although many of the ‘mistakes’ you’ve made in the past are all a part of learning in life, there is can be benefit in listening to that advice now, to ensure you don’t make the same mistakes twice. For example, if you would tell your younger self to make family a stronger priority and spend more time with loved ones you’ve since lost, that’s a good indication of a behaviour that you could change in the present.

Many of us are well-versed in giving and receiving advice. In fact, giving a well-thought-out piece of compassionate advice to a loved one (when welcomed) can be a really good feeling. It helps us to tell our friends and family that we love them and want the best for them. It also helps us to reinforce in those loved ones that they’re strong, capable and cared for. So, what if we could give compassionate, empathetic and informed advice to our own younger selves? This is a great opportunity to impart some of your current-day wisdom on a more inexperienced you; acknowledging that mistakes were made, but that ultimately, you’ll make it through, learn, and grow. It may sound a little silly to be having a conversation with your younger self, but try giving it a go, and see how helpful and empowering it can really be!

Hint: You might even like to write down these pieces of advice in a diary, to help reinforce their power.

As an example, the next time you’re feeling regretful about how badly a relationship ended, try re-framing the lesson into a piece of advice for your younger self. You might say to yourself, “In your next relationship, don’t let your partner devalue you and walk all over you. Stand up for what you want and need from that relationship, and if you’re not getting it, feel empowered to walk away. You deserve more, and you will survive and thrive without them.” 

As a thought exercise, why not sit and take the time to write down a few key pieces of advice you’d give to your younger self. Then think, would your younger self be proud of or disappointed in the person you are today, and why? It might help to put these thoughts into categories, such as:

  • Love and relationships
  • Education
  • Direction and goals
  • Finances
  • Identity

Then, reflect on the pieces of advice you’d choose to impart on your younger self. Are there clues in those words about things you could change today, to make your younger self proud, and to ensure that you don’t repeat the mistakes you feel you’ve made before? This powerful tool for personal growth can help you to achieve perspective and unlock what’s really important to you.

At Integrated Health Specialists, we offer a range of specialised life coaching, counselling, hypnotherapy services and more. To unlock your potential and make meaningful changes to your life, get in touch today.

References: Kowalski, R. M., & McCord, A. (2020). If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self. The Journal of Social Psychology, 160(1), 1 – 20. Doi. 10.1080/00224545.2019.1609401

Michelle van Namen
Author: Michelle van Namen