Sunday, June 17, 2012

How I Learned to Stop Torturing Myself Over "Bad" Decisions

My house is falling apart. At least that's how it feels.

Demolished house in Marshall, 20050703
What I expect to see every time I come home from work. 
We bought this house three years ago. It is 120 years old, brick, tall, and pretty. When we bought it, we had no idea what we were doing. We read some tips on house buying, but we were first timers without a lot of context to draw upon. We had it inspected (by an independent inspector, despite the realtor's insistence that she "knew a great guy") and felt fairly confident that we were making a decent choice.

Since then, we've had to make some major repairs that were completely avoidable, but our house was renovated by someone looking to make a quick buck. It's structurally sound, and I believe that the inspector was honest and through with the stuff that he inspected, but I think that the renovator (who I've since found out is involved in multiple malpractice suits) knew exactly which stuff would be invisible to the inspector, and that's where he cut corners, corners we're now frustratingly (and expensively) having to go back over. I keep saying that by the time we sell this house it'll actually be worth living in.

I'm not telling this story to draw sympathy for my home improvement woes (if I wanted to do that, I'd tell you about how--on the day I found out I was pregnant--I walked in the front door to find that my kitchen ceiling had come crashing to the floor while I was away. True story.) Instead, I'm telling this story because I've learned some lessons. Sure, I've learned some lessons in home buying that I will undoubtedly employ the next time around, but those aren't what I'm talking about either. I've learned to stop beating myself up over "bad" decisions.

There was a while where I cursed my own stupidity. "How could you have bought this house?" I'd ask myself. "This was such a bad decision. You're never going to be able to bounce back from this." I'd run through daydream scenarios of me living in a different, not-chosen house, one where the ceilings stayed where they belonged, the toilets scrubbed themselves, and manna from the gods dripped from the faucets. I played out all kinds of hypothetical scenarios that involved one big key: not buying this house.

But that's not fair. It's not fair to beat myself up over that decision for two reasons.

First, I can't use contemporary knowledge to judge past decisions.

Sure, now I know what I should have done when choosing a house, but I didn't have that experience to draw from before, and I was using as much experience as I had to make the decision when I made it. I wasn't being stupid. I was doing the best I could with what I had. Did that make it the "right" choice? Not necessarily, but it does mean that the present me needs to cut the past me some slack.

But, most importantly, my past is part of my present.

I don't mean to get all Butterfly Effect on you, but there are some really big parts of my life that I know would be different if I had made different decisions. In this particular instance, I probably wouldn't have had my daughter if I hadn't bought this house. Part of our decision in deciding that it was okay to try to get pregnant was the size of the house we were living in (we were in a tiny one bedroom apartment before) and the relative stability of our living arrangements. I'm not saying that we couldn't raise a child in a one-bedroom rental (I know that plenty of people do) but I do know that these factors were part of our decision, and I don't think we would have made the decision to try to conceive if we hadn't first bought a house.

So, buying a house when we did is tied with me having my daughter, truly one of the most important parts of my life. I can't try to erase the "mistakes" of my past while simultaneously holding up the parts of my life that I love. They go together. It's a package deal.

That doesn't mean that I get a free pass on every decision.

Accepting that there are things about my past that I would do differently without regret is not a free pass to do whatever I want. I don't just walk blindly into each decision with the knowledge that I can say "what's meant to be will be" will get me through. I'm not a fatalist, and I do believe that I have agency in the way that my life plays out. I think that my decisions matter. Because of that, I try very hard to make the best decision possible for the context of the moment. I research. I weigh options. I decide. Sometimes I decide "wrong." Sometimes I make a decision that I probably shouldn't have made; there was some part of the context that I missed. Maybe I missed it because I didn't research thoroughly enough. Maybe I missed it because I simply didn't yet have the knowledge or experience to make me look for it. Maybe I missed it because I was being lazy that day.

Whatever the case, the best that I can do is continue to make decisions using the knowledge and experience that I gain as I go. Playing "what if" is just a deadly loop of being trapped in the past, and that effectively renders me incapable of learning new knowledge to take into future decisions. If I want to grow, I have to let those things go.

Also, I need to start researching how to sell a house.

Photo credit: rsgranne


  1. I, too have been needing to cut the "past me" some slack. Thanks for sharing, Michelle :)

    Also, I know I've said it before, but I love the way you write.

  2. We bought our first house last year and I definitely have moments of regret (although nothing nearly as serious as a failed ceiling has happened, it is an old house -- 1937). I think house ownership has a huuuuuuge learning curve. I think a lot about what to do to prepare to sell our house someday down the line.

    1. Oh yes. It's such a steep learning curve. And I want to say that maybe if I'd had more people who knew about it helping me out it would have gone smoother, but I think it's a learning curve you really have to learn hands-on, too. Sigh. Next time.

  3. "by the time we sell this house it'll actually be worth living in."

    Yup, my thoughts exactly! We have done so much to bring this house up to "liveable" but it's tiny so I'm sure we will have to move to somewhere bigger eventually, and that that house will need all the same things done all over again!

  4. "by the time we sell this house it'll actually be worth living in."

    Yup, my thoughts exactly! We have done so much to bring this house up to "liveable" but it's tiny so I'm sure we will have to move to somewhere bigger eventually, and that that house will need all the same things done all over again!