While we were recently in England we were invited to a dinner party that was also attended by Monica Lewinsky (yes, that Monica!). She struck us as being a beautiful, intelligent and confident woman, and had attended the London School of Economics.
As we left we thought about how tough it can be to move on in life beyond difficult or challenging times, such as Monica experienced when she had her mistakes played out in the glare of the media spotlight and became one of the worlds most recognizable names. Who hasn’t heard of Monica Lewinsky?
Forgiving ourselves for past transgressions is one of the hardest things we have to face, as none of us get it right all the time. Imagine how boring it would be if we were all perfect and none of us ever did anything wrong. We are here to learn and grow, not to be perfect.
In a recent workshop, we asked how many people were carrying some personal guilt or shame for something they had done that they could not forgive themselves for. At least three-quarters of the people put up their hands. One participant, Leila, had been looking after her daughter’s dog when it unexpectedly died. Leila’s grief was compounded by the guilt and remorse she felt. As she described this event it sounded very recent, so we were surprised to hear that, although it had happened many years earlier, Leila had still not been able to forgive herself.
Guilt for what we have done stays with us long after the event: I am such a bad, hopeless, useless, awful, uncaring, hurtful, unlovable person who never gets it right. We think that through our guilt we are somehow redeeming our wrong doing, when in reality all it does is create more suffering. Blame follows guilt: How could I have done such a thing? How can I ever trust myself? How can I ever be trusted by anyone else?
And that is the biggest reason why we need to forgive ourselves. Holding on to past guilt or shame hurts us, not anyone else, and it doesn’t change what happened one iota. As we thought about this, six different reasons to forgive ourselves came to mind.
1. We are not who we were yesterday
Within the space of seven years every cell in our body dies and is reformed, our thoughts are constantly changing and our feelings come and go. We are literally not the same person we were a minute ago, let alone a day, a month or a year ago. As we are no longer who we were when we did the deed, so we can bring forgiveness and hold our past selves with kindness and compassion.
2. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting
Inside us is the equivalent of an airplane’s black box: everything we have been through is logged there, whether we are aware of it or not. So forgetting something is not really an option. No matter how hard we try, it will always be lurking around the corner, waiting to drag our emotions down again. On the other hand, forgiveness accepts the presence of the dreaded deed, it looks it full in the face and says, ‘Yes, I know you. Now let’s have tea together and get to know each other a bit better.’
3. We can learn so much from our mistakes
By getting to know who we were we have the chance to learn from what we did. We can become our own greatest teacher by seeing how mistaken we can be, even when we fully believe we are right. Mistakes show us we are human. If we do not acknowledge our blunders then we are not only blind to our own failings but we are also more likely to repeat them.
4. I am ok but I don’t always get it right
Forgiving ourselves is not the same as forgiving what we did. A bad or rotten act is just that, and no amount of forgiveness will change it. But nor does constantly blaming ourselves. For instance, Monica made some obvious mistakes – but to continually blame herself will get her nowhere fast. What we can do is to really accept what we did while forgiving that part of us that was unaware of what we were doing or how it would impact other people; the part that just doesn’t always get it right.
5. Accepting ourselves, warts and all
When we do something wrong or hurtful we tend to beat ourselves up, to try to find redemption through shame, remorse, and even self-hatred. “I am such an idiot,” “My stupidity ruined everything,” “I am a hopeless human being.” Forgiving ourselves is the opposite. It is a radical acceptance of ourselves just as we are, mistakes and all, so that we can know ourselves more deeply and honestly. And because, in the long run, it is only through such self-acceptance that we are free to love and laugh again. Remember: Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly!
6. Letting go of the drama queen
This is one of the hardest things to do, but holding onto the story and details of that happened is actually like a smokescreen that clouds our mind and stops us from seeing that we are more than the event, that whatever we did is not the whole of us. We can put the story down. We do not have to hold on to it, or keep repeating it in our minds. We can say: “I made a mistake, but I am not the guilt, I am not the mistake, I am not the failure, it is not the whole of me.”
Forgiving ourselves is an ongoing process. Every time we criticize or blame ourselves for being hopeless, useless, wrong, stupid, for all the self-dislike and self-denial, for believing we deserve the bad things that happen, that we must have done something wrong to be so abused, for thinking we should have known better, that it was all our own fault, that we were asking for it, for rejecting ourselves, for abandoning ourselves, for ignoring or denying our own needs and feelings, we can simply say, “I forgive myself.” We do not need to create more guilt, shame, or blame—the world has enough already.
Here is a little practice you can do. Sitting quietly, aware of your breathing, silently repeat, “Whether through my words or my actions, if I have created suffering for another, I forgive myself. If I have created suffering for myself, I forgive myself. May I be happy, may I be filled with forgiveness and love.”