Maya Angelou’s quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better” has come to mean so much to me.
A few years ago, as my relationship was falling apart, I reacted and responded in the only way I knew how. Now that I know better, I look back at that time and wish I could have done it differently. I have to remind myself that I know things now that I didn’t know then—that I was doing the best I could with the tools I had in my toolbox.
When you’re in the middle of a crisis, you aren’t really thinking clearly. But somewhere in your brain, every moment of that crisis is recorded and allows you to replay it over and over. In the slow-motion replay, I can see things that were signs of the choices that were being made, but at the time I had confidence, trust, and a strong sense of identity and so I wasn’t looking for signs.
People make choices that can destroy all of that confidence, trust, and identity. But now, I have come to a place where I wish I could go back with my “knowing, better self” and do better.
Here are five things I wish I could go back and do differently:
1. Be more patient.
The pain was so great—I just wanted it over, so I moved quickly once I knew for sure what was happening. Since I couldn’t protect my feelings, I moved to protect the things I felt I had control over. My knowing, better self would tell me to be patient and wait. It might not have changed the outcome, but it definitely could have changed the level of messiness that came along with the process.
2. Be willing to leave.
Things got really bad almost overnight. I dug in and insisted that he be the one to leave. In the months that it took to get from point A to point B, it went from bad to insanely bad (like cringeworthy even for a Netflix movie bad). I was willing to draw a line about him leaving, but that line didn’t protect me from what was happening. My knowing, better self would tell me that I deserve to be loved, respected, valued, and communicated with honestly, and to protect myself and leave when those things were not happening.
3. Be unapologetically protective of myself.
The aftermath of infidelity is a place in great need of boundaries—thick, stalwart, and impenetrable. You must build a fortress around you and know that the playbook of infidelity is the same in every single case. It is both terrifying and empowering to realize that the steps from “I’m not sure I want to stay with you” to “I love you, I’m just not in love with you” to “I just need space” are the same in every situation.
There are support groups and online resources that can help. My knowing, better self would say that this is not a time for being polite—it’s a time for identifying your own needs and being able to address them yourself. Tighten the boundaries, make no apologies, and make no exceptions.
4. Be okay with not knowing.
I need things to be concrete, structured, and clear in order for me to feel safe, and so I panicked when things were quickly coming unraveled. I tried meditation, prayer, yoga, journaling, but I needed to feel in control of what was happening and I just didn’t. My knowing, better self would tell me that the discomfort would lead to growth and that I could learn to be okay with not knowing and not being in control.
She would say that I could be my own safety and that I could find a way to be compassionate to the part of me that is so desperate for control.
5. Be able to act as if.
In Alcoholics Anonymous, they tell people who are struggling with sobriety to “act as if.” Meaning, they act as if they are sober until they can sustain being sober. It’s similar to “fake it, ‘til you make it.” My father told me every day during these months (now years) that I was strong enough. I didn’t feel strong enough—I felt defeated and broken and confused and anxious and angry and betrayed.
My knowing, better self would tell me that my dad was right (isn’t that always the way?). I was strong enough. Well, with medication, therapy, and time, I am getting there. And believing in myself would have been a good place to start.
The last piece I would go back and do over would be to find a therapist who can help with these things. Not all therapists are the same and not all therapists are even good, and no therapist should make you feel judged or wrong or less secure than when you went in. Therapists are like shoes—if they don’t feel right the first time you put them on, don’t buy them, they will not “stretch out” and become your favorite shoes.
Knowing better is a kind of grace that is bittersweet. It’s like scar tissue—it becomes just a part of who you are, but it never feels quite like it was meant to be there. If my knowing better can help you find peace even just a couple of days sooner in your grief, then it will be of benefit.
And if no one has told you today that you deserve to be loved, valued, and treated with respect, then let me—because you, all by yourself, are most definitely, enough.