Recently I had the honor of giving a talk about mindfulness at a large corporation known for their emphasis on well-being in the workplace. During the session, someone asked a question about how to deal with a recurring fear they had about repeating mistakes they had made in the past. This was a great question, because I believe it's something that all of us struggle with at some time or another.
When we face the challenge of learning from our mistakes, it helps to step back and detach ourselves from the emotions and connections to the past situation in order to look at them with clarity. This willingness to examine an experience without bias can help to bring around a sense of peace with yourself about the situation. Otherwise, you may continue to dwell on feelings of regret and sadness that add to the difficultly of moving forward.
Are you still haunted by the biggest mistake you ever made? I recommend the following perspective for situations like this. Since what happened is in the past, do your best to revisit those unique moments in time when the events took place. Finding a quiet place in nature or somewhere with few distractions where you won't be disturbed works well for this. Make sure you feel somewhat centered and not in the midst of a current emotional challenge. Give yourself permission to engage in this activity and refrain from indulging in any further self-blame around the situation.
Whether they were words that caused mental duress to another person or actions that brought harm to yourself, understand that in those moments, you made choices which, at that specific time in your life, you believed were the correct thing to do. Additionally, you may have chosen to engage in those actions because they brought about a result you desired so much that it overrode your "better" judgment.
What's imperative to understand is that at that specific time, you were operating in a different state of mind than you are when you look back later with regrets. At that time, you thought it was the right course of action to follow. The outcome is what gave you that new perspective. Oftentimes, lessons can be painful.
Here is the most important point: You are evolving. The fact that you are able to look back at the past and understand that your actions were detrimental in some way means that you have gained a level of clarity in your life. Consider the alternative: You engaged in some unfavorable action but didn't comprehend the impact--that would be the real "mistake." The good news is that you have greater clarity now than you had before, and that is a sign that you have evolved.
If you're willing to look deeper, try to understand why the situation, the outcome and your actions played out as they did. Were your actions based on egoistic gain, done out of pure ignorance, a reaction to something else happening in your life, or maybe an indulgence at the time that you thought would make your life better in some way? Knowing what you know now, would you do it again in this moment? If not, then lesson learned. You're not the same person now that you were at that time. You've changed. On the other hand, if you would continue to react in the same way, then accept that part about yourself instead of fighting it. Realize you're still a work in progress (as we all are).
If it makes you feel better in some way or helps to bring closure, do what you need to do to make amends, either directly or through some symbolic gesture. If the situation involved other people, then I don't recommend making validation from them your goal. You've done your part; it's up to them to choose which state of mind they wish to dwell in. They may choose to hold onto it for their own reasons.
Perhaps even eradicating the attitude of judging our actions as "mistakes" can be beneficial. Instead, we need to focus on seeking knowledge and experience from the endless lessons we face through our existence in this world. We each have our own path to follow. Realize that you're doing the best you can with what you have at this moment, just like everyone else is.