Embracing the present: How to stop romanticizing your past and move forward with grace

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There is one major habit I’ve had a real hard time kicking since coming to college. On those nights when I feel less than capable or anxious about school, I find myself in bed and in the archives. 

I dig up old pictures of “happier” or “more confident” times — times when my body looked different, when old friendships were still in full swing and when life was simply “better.” It is a habit that I know is actively unproductive and discredits much of what I have done to get where I am now. 

However, it’s not just a habit; it’s a belief that whatever life I had before was more beautiful or more worth living than the life I have right now.

I love to romanticize how “confident” I was in high school. I was always at coffee shops in search of a conversation with a stranger. I would go to the beach alone and watch the sunrise as I journaled and meditated. Although those things were indeed beautiful and fun, my motivation wasn’t purely to suck the most out of life. I fed off of the feeling of being recognized by people who knew me, or better yet, of me in public. I did things that made me feel “different” or unique. 

While this made for some fun stories and experiences, ultimately the high was short lived. Living that lifestyle, then sharing it on social media and being praised for it, fueled my ego and gave me a level of externally validated self-assurance that I now look back on with slight envy. And the funny part is, I know how unhappy and insecure that girl was during those cafe conversations and beach mornings. 

However, I still can’t blame my past self for this; I didn’t have the experience to recognize that it was my lack of self-worth and respect that fueled this behavior.

Something changed when I went to college. I felt that “confidence” wavering in the same way that major life changes will often make you question everything you thought you had figured out. Friendships grew and tapered off, new expectations and responsibilities piled up, and relationships I never thought I would have developed. 

Two years and a pandemic later, I found myself floundering. I had gone through heartbreak, transitioned out of my childhood home, experienced the sudden shift to financial independence and changed majors for the second time. During a time of such turmoil, it was easy to look in the mirror and mourn the person I used to be. 

It wasn’t until the summer after my second year of college that I finally stopped and recognized how much had changed since high school. I was standing in my living room, and my best friend of six years was sitting on the couch and looking at me. 

“Elise, I don’t think you’ve ever been as genuinely confident as you are right now,” she said. 

It didn’t make sense to me. How could she say that when she knew exactly how insecure I was at the time? But then I realized she was right. For a long time, my sense of confidence was based on how accepted I was by the people around me. On the other hand, my friend could see a change in me that I couldn’t. The experiences I once blamed for “making me less confident” actually just shaped the motives behind my actions. 

I’m not going to say that a part of me still doesn’t miss the past version of myself who thought so highly of herself, because I would be lying. I’m not going to say that I’ve fully come to terms with my life at this very moment because that also wouldn’t be truthful. 

However, what I can say with full confidence is that I am grateful for the things in my life I’ve gone through. They have changed me; but more importantly, they have refined me. They were difficult, but they were necessary.

Even if your journey looks different than mine and your present circumstances are easier for you to embrace than your past, there is something to be said about comparing yourself to any other version of you. We’ve always been doing the best with what we’ve been given. There is room for grace for your past self who didn’t know any better, just as there is grace for you right now.

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