Learning to let go of your past decisions is difficult for most people. We hold on far longer than necessary. It’s as if we feel the compulsion to punish ourselves before feeling the permission to finally let go. Self-forgiveness demands a level of awareness that you’re carrying the burden from the past which is no longer serving you. In truth, regret, resentment and shame is a toxic brew of emotions that will slowly poison all aspects of your life. I have learned the art of self-forgiveness from my own life and I’m here to give you the roadmap to letting go of your past, learning from my past mistakes and committing to being the best version of yourself in every moment of every day.
The Path to Self-Forgiveness
First, what’s the actual definition of forgiveness? What is self-forgiveness? I need to lay the foundation for the rest of this article. Everyone has their own opinion on the path to self-forgiveness but I’m a stickler for language and I believe it matters to start with a literal definition as a starting point — and in the same breath I will let you know right now that I will veer in a multitude of directions to paint my own interpretation of what it means to truly learn the art of self-forgiveness so you can set yourself free from your past, and rediscover your soul; and thirst to live as the best version of yourself.
I like Wikipedia’s definition of forgiveness :
“Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which one who may initially feel victimized, undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding a given offense, and overcomes negative emotions such as resentment and vengeance (however justified it might be)…”Wikipedia, “Forgiveness”
If you want a more academic and in-depth exploration of forgiveness then I highly recommend reading the description from Stanford University. Within the article, it presents the various theories on ‘forgiveness’ and what criteria must be met to ultimately forgive. Remember, “forgiveness” relates to ‘the act of forgiving’ toward someone other than yourself, whereas “self-forgiveness” is the same definition/theory but applied to oneself.
Here’s a list of criteria necessary for self-forgiveness from Stanford University :
One of the foremost defenders of such conditions is Charles Griswold, who argues that in the “paradigmatic scene”, there are numerous wrongdoer-dependent conditions on forgiveness. Namely, the wrongdoer must:Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, “forgiveness.” First published Thu May 6, 2010; substantive revision Wed May 31, 2017
(1) Acknowledge that she was responsible for the wrong in question;
(2) Repudiate the deeds and disavow the thought that she would do them again;
(3) Experience and express regret at having caused the particular wrong;
(4) Commit, by deeds and words, to being the sort of person who doesn’t do wrong;
(5) Show that she understands, from the victim’s perspective, the damage done by the wrongdoing; and —
(6) Offer some sort of narrative to explain why she did wrong (2007: 47–51).
From a scientific perspective there is no absolute agreement of what it means ‘to forgive,’ but it is my belief that the act of self-forgiveness has many shades of gray and the road to achieve true self-forgiveness is entirely dependent on context, such as : What is the act you want to forgive yourself for? What were the circumstances surrounding the action you took and/or the decision you made? What was your frame of mind? What were your options? etc. Context matters, alongside your level of self-awareness about the choice you were making at the time. Did you know better and choose to ignore what you knew or were ignorant, misinformed or uneducated about the consequences of your actions?
The final passage from Stanford University reads as follows :
As it should be clear, there is significant disagreement about the nature of forgiveness in the psychological sciences, leading one prominent psychologist of forgiveness to write that “no consensual definition of forgiveness exists” (McCullough, et al. 2000: 7)Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, “forgiveness.” First published Thu May 6, 2010; substantive revision Wed May 31, 2017
You are Human / Perfectly Imperfect
Life is an inevitable journey of change. Inherent to our journey we will make poor choices, which we also refer to as “mistakes.” I personally don’t like the word ‘mistake’ because it implies that one can go through life without having made an err in judgement; as though there’s a path through life in which every decision we make is flawless and perfect. There is no perfect life. There is no one perfect path for your life. These myths are at the heart of how we respond when we make a decision that leads us to behavior where we recognize that perhaps we could have made a wiser decision.
I believe in learning to make decisions that are healthier and unhealthier — goals that move us towards a better version of our self or goals that lead us down a road of self-destruction or worse; making decisions that hurt the ones we love or perhaps even kill people we don’t even know.
Lesson : Learn to make decisions you won’t regret
Exhibit A : Getting into your car and driving home after a night of ‘one too many drinks’ at a friends house. In this example it is evident that you should have never even considered driving your car while drunk, and I’m sure you knew better but your judgement was impaired and you didn’t plan for finding a safe way home. This is an example of stupidity that could have been avoided. I’ve had many friends who did this very thing and didn’t even change their actions even after I questioned their judgement; which proves how irrational people can be.
In this example, you’re lucky if you made it home without incident. A secondary outcome would have been being pulled over by a police officer and thrown in jail for driving under the influence.
The third scenario, and the most tragic version of this example is hitting a pedestrian, dog, or striking another vehicle, maybe you paralyze someone or kill them; maybe an entire family. Imagine the irreversible pain of causing the death of a living being or animal. This happens every day and the tragedy is that it can be avoided by using your intelligence to choose a rational action. This isn’t rocket science, but I guarantee that you will regret having decided to drive while inebriated if you kill someone and end up in jail; paying the price for the rest of your life.
Think your actions through BEFORE YOU MAKE AN IMPULSIVE DECISION.
Even in this extreme example, you will need to practice the art of self-forgiveness and let go of the past. Eventually you will likely learn to forgive yourself but at what cost? How many years will you punish yourself for something that you can’t change? Why not get to the point of self-forgiveness sooner rather than later, allowing you to do something positive with your past; perhaps putting your “mistake” toward educating others about drinking and driving. Transforming our past into positive action is a much more constructive — and healthier — way to move forward through your life.
But why is this such a hard thing to do? In extreme cases of regret it appears to be built within our DNA to punish ourselves, feel the deep shame, and hold on to what we should have done, could have done. Beyond on our own self-absorbed outlook on our past we often forget the pain we caused others. It has been true from my own experience that the more I have suffered the more empathy I have developed, recognizing that within each human being lies a heart and soul that also suffers alongside me depending on their circumstance. We are all the same underneath our skin. We all feel the same emotions.
What You Don’t Know Can Destroy You
What’s my point? Whatever has happened up until now in your life cannot be changed. It’s fixed. It’s done. Your perspective on the past is more important than what happened because you can’t change anything. No amount of thinking will reverse an act of regret and yet you still try to think through it. The list of regrets from your past choices is vast, here are a few that I came up :
- Why did I marry him/her? Why didn’t we go to therapy to fix our marriage
- Why did I have children? Why did I let my daughter do that thing that led to that horrible incident?
- Should I have pursued being a filmmaker instead of marketing?
- Why did I start smoking at 17? Why didn’t I quit twenty years ago?
- I could have been a great novelist but instead I wasted countless hours watching TV and partying? Where did my potential go?
- Why didn’t I ask that guy out on a date? i really liked him. Where is he now?
- Why did I allow myself to become obese? How much have I lost to my condition?
- I should have never tried surfing. I never would have been hit by a surfboard and suffered from a concussion.
- I always wanted to try acting. It’s too late now. I’m 50 years old.
- I should have purchased Bitcoin when it was only one dollar. I’m so stupid.
- Why did I buy a new car instead of a house when houses were so cheap compared to now. I’ll never own a home.
This list is infinite. I guarantee you that everyone carries with them a degree of regret; the question is : “How much of your regret is weighing you down, pulling you under?” When will you learn to let go? In order to move forward you have to accept the past, no matter how horrible or traumatic, and recognize that you made the best decision you could at the time otherwise you would have done something else. Acceptance is the key to moving forward. And one step beyond acceptance is learning from your past. Take all the wisdom you can from your mistakes and then use that experience to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. You must learn from your past but I recommend learning from other peoples mistakes instead.
Not everything is up to us. Sometimes life just happens to us. Currently, as I write this, it’s 2021 and Covid19 has shut down the world for almost one year. Nobody could prepare for this moment. Yes, it was inevitable and much more could have done to prepare from a government standpoint but few people expected such a global pandemic in their lifetime. It came in like a tornado and never left the ground. Would you blame yourself for the pandemic or a tornado or an earthquake? Of course not. These acts of nature are easier to accept because we are powerless against them.
In many ways we are victims to our ignorance and blind spots. We don’t know what we don’t know and we make decisions with good intentions without having the awareness of what “could happen.” You see, the problem with human thinking is that most people assume that everything will go as planned and it rarely does. Our irrational thought process prevents us from thinking through our decisions and therefore our past regrets are often as much in control as a hurricane. Our inability to map out the seven likely outcomes of a decision is why we rarely consider the worst case scenario. Driving drunk will be fine. Nobody will notice my car is veering slightly into other lanes. I’m sure I’ll be able to drive home — it’s only two miles. What could possibly go wrong?
If you only take one thing out of this article, remember this : The sign of intelligence is knowing that you don’t really know anything and therefore you are always questioning your thoughts and actions. The sign of an idiot is the belief that they know it all, backed up with all the confidence in the world. No matter what you think there are always things you don’t know — always. This is always true. Realizing this truth will hopefully make you consider and reconsider every decision you make; especially the decisions that can lead you down the road of no return.
You don’t want to beat yourself up for beating yourself up in the vain hope that it will somehow make you stop beating yourself up.Kristin Neff, Ph.D. / From the book : “Self-Compassion : The proven power of being kind to yourself.”
Death is the Infinite Equalizer
Once we recognize our own humanity we have the ability to connect with every person on earth. This carries a connection with humanity providing a connective tissue where we will begin to consider others when making decisions. For many people this realization comes to late; such as the end of their life.
Nothing wakes people up quicker than the moment they have to confront their imminent death, whether through illness or old age. Some things are inevitable. We can’t escape them no matter how hard we try. We will all make poor choices in life but the question is : “How quickly will you learn to think rationally and learn from the wisdom of others in order to avoid making mistakes that you can’t take back?”
Eating a piece of cake may feel regrettable an hour later when you realize you ate too much coupled with the guilt that you have just stalled your dieting plan. Even in a simple case like this self-forgiveness is necessary. Accept your actions and move forward being more mindful of how you eat. This is minor in the scope of what type of regret you may be living with.
Not All Regret is Created Equal
How do you move forward when the burden of your past feels insurmountable? In my life I’ve learned to confront my feelings whenever they arise. Rather than run the other way or distract myself from my uncomfortable feelings I would always write them down. The act of writing about how you feel in a stream of conscious way will provide you with some distance between how you feel. Writing down your thoughts helps you be objective about what you’re experiencing. This viewpoint makes it easier to process. I’ve always found writing to be therapeutic, as many people do.
To be continued tomorrow. I have much more to say about self-forgiveness…