The Importance of Self-Forgiveness
If you’ve ever done something you regretted (and come on, who hasn’t?), you’re not alone. In fact, you are in the company of… hmmm… let’s see… how many people are there on the planet?
The reality is that we all do stupid or selfish things at times. I know I do. Like the time I forgot about the side mirrors on my car while reversing out of a parking lot. Or when I turned up for a Broadway show at 7 o’clock only to discover I’d booked a matinee. Or the time I dropped my kids at school on a teacher in-service day (my kids were not happy). And that’s just for starters. I’ve also made flippant comments that have caused offense and lacked the guts to confront an awkward issue only to pay a steep price down the line. I could go on, but you get the gist.
It’s why I’ve thought so much about the importance of self-forgiveness—extending mercy to ourselves when we slip up, mess up and fail to live up to our own ideals.
Of course, I am operating on the assumption that you’ve also made a few mistakes. Maybe in your haste to please or achieve, you’ve spoken too fast or made a rushed decision that, had you paused to think, you’d have realized wouldn’t end well.
Like I said, join the club—beside a few billion fellow “human becomings” in progress.
So how can you get off your own back, practice more self-compassion and stop spending so much of your energy crushing your spirit each time the pettier, prideful and more primitive forces of your nature try to get the better of you?
You begin by embracing your own humanity, accepting yourself as the flawsome but fallible human becoming that you are. By accepting that none of us ever truly arrive at perfection, it frees you to experience less angst and more grace as you navigate your journey of becoming.
Of course, perhaps you feel that your mistakes are far more grievous than swiping off car mirrors or losing patience with your kids. Perhaps you are so filled with shame for what you did that you can’t imagine how you could ever come to pardon your wrongs. Maybe people were hurt. Maybe lives were ruined. Fortunes lost. Hearts broken.
But here’s the deal: Withholding forgiveness from yourself and choosing to suffer in self-recrimination doesn’t serve anyone. It won’t restore what was lost or undo damage done. All it does is deprive you of the ability to learn the valuable lessons your missteps hold for you—lessons you couldn’t have learned otherwise—and to use your cumulative hard-won wisdom to be a greater gift for others. After all, every minute you spend wallowing in guilt for what you did wrong is a minute you are not making things more right.
This is not to say others will forgive what you did. That is their “heart work” to do, not your own. Either way, whether others extend you their forgiveness, you should never have to contemplate whether you’ll extend it to yourself. And of course, while it should go without saying, embracing self-forgiveness doesn’t give you a free pass to be a jerk or an excuse for pulling others down. It just gets you off the hook from tearing yourself down.
I once heard Oprah define forgiveness as never again using the past against someone. Likewise, self-forgiveness is about never again using your fallen moments against yourself. Rather, it is committing to doing your own heart work, confronting with brutal self-honesty the deeper forces at play which led you to make those mistakes in the first place. And then, it is cleaning up your mess as best you can and recommitting yourself to do better next time. And when you mess up again (as you will), to repeating this cycle. (Note: You will repeat it many times.)
None of us are immune to temptation, and every single one of us has, at one time or another, surrendered self-respect to self-interest. The pull of pride, greed, jealousy or fear can be strong. Very strong. Unless we are regularly connecting with the highest part of ourselves—that part that yearns to be generous and kind and brave and truthful—the pull of the lower forces can win out.
So embrace your fallibility, my fellow human becoming. Give yourself permission to not have it all together, all the time. Doing so will mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually open up new space to extend greater compassion and forge deeper connections with the other imperfect human becomings in your life.
The benefits don’t end there. As self-compassion researcher Dr. Kristin Neff shared on my Live Brave podcast, research has found that self-compassion is a stronger determinant of learning, motivation and performance than self-esteem. That is, thinking highly of yourself matters less than being kind to yourself when you haven’t nailed it. Put simply: Being kind to yourself when you falter or fail isn’t just the nice thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.
If you’ve read to this point, perhaps it is because it’s time to extend to yourself a little more mercy and practice more self-forgiveness. If so, I invite you to reflect on these questions (they make a powerful journal exercise!):
- What do I need to forgive myself for?
- How will doing so help me to learn, grow and be a more wholehearted person who brings out the best in those around me?
- How will it cost me if I don’t?
This article was published in July 2016 and has been updated. Photo by @KostikovaNatalia/Twenty20
Best-selling author and mother of four, Margie Warrell is on a mission to embolden people to live and lead more bravely. Margie’s gained hard-won wisdom on building courage since her childhood in rural Australia. Her insights have also been shaped by her work with trailblazing leaders from Richard Branson to Bill Marriott and organizations from NASA to Google. Founder of Global Courage, host of the Live Brave podcast and advisory board member of Forbes Business School, Margie’s just released her fifth book You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself. She’d love to support you at www.margiewarrell.com .
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