It may seem like I am hammering the forgiveness topic to death but it really is something that weighs heavily on my mind. I often find myself being blindsided by things in the past that I still beat myself up for. I can be in the shower, writing, doing dishes, or even watching television and suddenly a memory of something in the past will sneak up on me and cause that moment of self-hatred.
It isn’t like these are big giant morally offensive events in my past and it is a Tell-Tale Heart scenario. I’m not being haunted by the ghosts of people I’ve wronged. At least then I would think it is justified. Here is a solid example of what I am talking about. I was at a Renaissance fair and took a moment to chat with a harpist I really enjoy (Sarah Marie Mullen, if you must know). She plays a Celtic harp but plays music from all over Europe. I wanted to ask her if she found a similarity between Celtic music and certain music from Russia. I wanted to ask this question because of something Loreena McKennitt said in a concert once about Celts emigrating from the steppes of Russia. Okay, this short little story is turning kind of long. While asking this question and providing the framework for it, I forgot it was Loreena McKennitt who said this and said it was Sarah Mclachlan. Was this the worst possible mistake to make? No. Yet, every once in awhile it will percolate to the top of my brain and I spend several minutes beating myself up over it and then beating myself up over my still feeling bad for that moment. Then there is the time I thought I gave a clerk $20 but only gave her $10 and when I questioned it and she proved it was a $10, I felt like an ass. Or the time when I was just out of college and commuting home from work, I got stuck behind a motorhome climbing a long steep mountain. There was an opportunity to get around the motorhome by taking a short series of side roads. When I came back to the main road I was ahead of the motorhome but not by much and I had to gun it to get back on the road which freaked out other drivers. That moment still haunts me mainly because I keep imagining what could have happened, not what actually happened.
Anyway, I’m haunted by a diverse crazy set of events in my life that when they return to the forefront of my brain, I don’t laugh about, I don’t blow off as no big deal, or treat as some sort of life lesson. Instead I blush, feel shame, and chastise myself. Since reading the article on thriving instead of surviving and getting stuck on the concept of forgiveness, I’ve been trying to develop some strategies for forgiving myself. I’ve come up with five steps that have been helping me. I’m not going to claim these five steps are 100% effective but these five steps have allowed me to move past some of these things as they come to the forefront of my thoughts instead of dwelling on them. In fact, these five steps have been effective enough in allowing me to forgive myself that I am now actively digging up other moments to see just how well I can deal with them.
Five Steps to Forgiving Yourself
1. Remember the moment fully.
I admit my normal strategy regarding these moment in the past was to repress it. I know that there isn’t anything to these memories, these moments that I should feel guilty about, so I would just shake them off. Now, when these memories come back to me, I fully embrace them. I actively try to recall every little detail.
Take for instance something that happened in second grade. I lived in the boonies and took a bus to school. One day before Easter, at a certain point the bus driver stopped the bus and handed out pieces of paper for an Easter Egg hunt. What I didn’t realize was there was a reason why he stopped the bus and handed out the invitations to the kids on the bus at that particular point. At that point the only kids on the bus were kids from the lake (the area I lived in) because those were the only families being invited to the Easter egg hunt. I took the invite to school and actively shared it with my classmates. The teacher even took it and copied it up on the chalkboard. I went home and shared the day’s events with my mom and she told me that the Easter egg hunt was just for the kids at the lake, not the kids from the school. The next day, I had kids coming up wanting more information about the event and not equipped to explain the subtle politics of why one group of kids gets to go and another group doesn’t, I had to tell them I had made a mistake. Over and over. The invite remained on the chalkboard all day and was a constant reminder of my mistake.
Whenever this memory comes up, I get ill. Even now, while processing it, I am getting woozy. Embracing the moment, and letting myself fully experience the dread, anxiety, and guilt terrifies me. Here I acted with the full intention of doing something good and I did something wrong. This event is one of the reasons why I like to make sure something is right the first time because issuing corrections dredges up this memory. Corrections are embarrassing.
2. Re-contextualize the moment, framing it as if it were someone else who had done it.
Once I’ve fully recalled the incident, I look at it as if that seven-year-old boy wasn’t me but just some other seven-year-old instead. So now it is a story of this seven-year-old boy who didn’t understand he was being invited to special event, invited everyone to the event, and then had to explain to everyone he made a mistake. Is there any reason to hold a grudge against that little boy? How much do I expect out of a seven-year-old? Honestly, if this were to happen to one of my friend’s kids, I would first be upset at the person who made the invite for not making it clear who was being invited, and upset at the teacher for not taking a moment and verify the situation before copying the invite on the chalkboard. Is there any reason to be upset at a seven-year-old boy for not having the political savvy for not knowing how to extricate himself from that situation by going to the teacher and telling her the error? It is what he should have done instead of trying to correct the problem alone, but no one advised him on what action to take.
I will admit it feels weird doing this. It feels like I’m writing an excuse for my behavior, but it is important to keep yourself separated from this. In fact, for some of my memories, I know that I’m going to have to write them up, put them aside and come back to them in order to separate myself enough from them to attempt to re-contextualize them.
3. Forgive that person as you would normally forgive anyone.
At this point, if step two was done thoroughly, it is fairly easy to offer forgiveness. Seven-year-old Sean, I forgive you for this mistake. There was no harm done. It was embarrassing, yes, but no one will hold it against you. In fact, I bet 32 years after the fact, not a soul will remember that incident. Only you will and you get to have that as part of your unique story. No one else gets to have that particular story.
The only bad part of this step is it is really had to offer yourself a hug, which is what forgiveness really requires as a proper punctuation.
4. Accept the forgiveness as the person who had done it.
This step is the critical step. It is easy to offer forgiveness to ourselves but we need to accept it. We need to realize and understand we are forgiven.
Seven-year-old Sean needs to accept the forgiveness offered by 39-year-old Sean. I understand I made a mistake and tried to correct it the best way I could. I also understand that it caused no one harm and is just one of those goofy moments of childhood. I realize now that this is one of those pivotal moments that made me who I am today and while it isn’t a proud moment, it is a part of the fabric of me.
5. Create a narrative about the event, so it is something you can share as an amusing anecdote, story, or cautionary tale.
I know this step may seem a bit odd but what this step does it makes sure you really are forgiving yourself and not going through another round of repression. You need to be able to retell your story openly without shame to know you have truly forgiven yourself.
It should be said, in hindsight, that I chose this event specifically because it is one that keeps haunting me and I thought it was a trifle, something as simple and light as the confusing of Mclachlan and McKennitt. What I didn’t expect was the very real, very troubling emotional reaction I had to processing this moment in my life. I can’t explain it but I think it really highlights the importance of self-forgiveness. It isn’t easy. If it were easy, we probably wouldn’t need to contemplate how to do it. How much baggage do some of us carry with us that is completely unnecessary?
I really need to stress the fact that if anyone is like me, going through guilt filled memories may become highly emotional. You need to make sure you have support available to offer hugs and words of comfort. Seriously. I shut down for a good four hours and needed to vent to my network of friends when I dredged up this simple, pointless memory. Can you imagine holding a seven-year-old responsible for your happiness now? And the real truth is even after I got the virtual hugs and words of solace from my friends I still retreated into a bottle of wine, homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes, and finally a pint of hazelnut gelato. Our pasts are filled with all sorts of land mines and we need to be prepared for when we stumble upon them.