Letting go of mistakes is tough stuff. Shedding the dry, dead skin of the past in favor of the supple, vibrant skin of a better version of yourself requires a certain mindset and awareness described well in the serenity prayer.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
It takes the wisdom to know what enriches our life and what erodes it. The abundance and confusion of modern life makes it difficult to discern the small number of things which provide long term fulfillment from the large number of things which provide short term distraction and relief from cravings.
We need enough impulse control to quiet the noise of the cravings and distractions in order to clearly see the signal of true fulfillment. The chatter and abundance of choice that is the context of modern life requires this sort of impulse control to be cultivated with determination.
Personal forgiveness requires moral courage. It takes courage to embrace the confrontation that comes with making commitments on the basis of imperfect information. You will be fully accountable to your commitments. You are alone in deciding right from wrong. You must decide for yourself and be responsible for the consequences. This sort of courage is more innate to some people than others. But anyone can learn to rationalize their way through courageous action and it becomes more and more innate over time.
We also need alignment between what fulfills us and what we think we deserve. Self-sabotage is common when these two don’t line up. You deserve to be fulfilled not because you’re entitled, but because you’re willing and have the means to invest in your own fulfillment. If you don’t have the means, you will accumulate assets and dispose of liabilities (moral, financial, situational, etc.) until you do.
The biggest obstacle to this alignment is shame. Shame is identifying with your actions. It’s the affinity between your sense of identity and your actions. It’s believing that you are a bad person because of your bad actions (or that you’re special because of your good actions). It is not possible to let go of your past when your identity is predicated on your actions. When it is, letting go of your past is equivalent to letting go of your identity, and it’s just not possible to do that on your own. And yes, you have to do it on your own. You have to forgive yourself in order to grow. You have to shed your own old skin in order to embrace your new skin. Nobody else can do it for you. The forgiveness of others sometimes makes it easier to forgive yourself. But you have to forgive yourself on your own terms, not in response to the forgiveness of others.
The healthy relative of shame is guilt. Guilt is believing that you are a good person that has done bad things. The disassociation between your identity and your actions enables you to let go. You can shed the wrongs while staying intact as who you are. You can say goodbye to the past and truly leave it behind. This disassociation is a necessity for forgiveness.
Personal forgiveness requires acceptance of the things that you cannot or will not change. These are the things that truly make you who you are. They are the basis of your character. They are the things for which you will not apologize. They are fundamental to who you are. They define you. They are not always happy or helpful. But they make you who you truly are.
In order to comfortably let go, you need to feel assured that you’re not risking losing something that you cherish. We want to keep the good and let go of the bad. In order to do this we need to know specifically what the good actually is. The best place to start in figuring that out is the list of things that you cannot change. Add to that list the things that you will not change. Add to that list some of the things for which you are thankful. The larger that list gets, the easier it is to let go of things that aren’t on that list.
Above all else, you need to let go of being “right”. Learning is like time, it only moves in one direction. There’s never been a case when you truly came to know less and less about something as time went on. As time progresses we learn that what we thought we knew wasn’t true, or wasn’t real, or was incomplete. The more you learn, the more you realize how much you didn’t, and don’t know.
Being right is comfortable. “Knowing” that the monsters in the closet aren’t real allows us to sleep at night. But knowing is a “most of the time” kind of thing. There are exceptions to every rule. You generally don’t want to bet against the rule. But when it’s a “forever” kind of thing you want to either forego the bet altogether, or accept that some bets will lose. And you always want to cut your losers with zeal.
The thing about mistakes is that they are “forever” kinds of things. They go on your permanent record. There are no take-backs or do-overs. They follow you until you confront them, accept them and release them. And that’s the thing about forgiveness. While others are under no obligation to forgive you, you have every obligation to forgive yourself. Forgiveness doesn’t erase or absolve you of the impact that your actions have had on others. But it’s the acknowledgment of your humanity and the imperfection and potential for change that comes with it that allows you move forward, accepting that you will make mistakes as you go.
Stubbornness charges interest when you’re wrong. It is emotionally cheaper to rent the convenient comfort of self-denial than to buy the enduring relief of acknowledgement, acceptance and forgiveness. But only in the short term. Only until it starts to cost you other opportunities. And it always does, eventually.
So here’s the plan: forgive yourself, and here’s how.
Step 1: Write down a list of the things you cannot change, will not change or for which you are thankful. Write it down to make it real. Think on that list (pray or meditate on it if you’re religious or spiritual).
Step 2: Accept that you’re human, and that being human is messy. Making mistakes is part of the game. Accept this as one of the things you cannot change.
Step 3: For 7 days straight, when you wake up each morning and before you go to sleep each night give yourself permission to make mistakes and release yourself from anything that’s not on the list you made in Step 1. If after 7 days you still feel guilt, commit to another 7 days. Keep going until being hopeful makes you feel more strong than vulnerable.
That’s it. Give it a shot.