I’ve seen many people suffering because they can’t forgive themselves. Maybe they hurt someone in the past, or allowed someone to get hurt, or missed an opportunity, or made a bad choice. And they torture themselves about it.
Sometimes people hold onto these regrets—and the pain they cause—for years or decades, and have great difficulty letting go of them. And regret festers. It’s like a wound that never heals, and that, like an abscess, poisons our entire being. It can turn into self-hatred—the belief that we, in our very core, are bad or unworthy.
Now there’s no way to instantly forgive ourselves. It’s a process that can take years. But I’d like to suggest a few things that can help with this important practice.
1. KNOW THAT YOU DID THE BEST YOU COULD
The past of course is past, and we all know we can’t really go back and change things, but we can end up replaying events over and over in our minds, wishing we’d made different choices.
When I recently told someone who was suffering because of regrets, ‘You did the best she could,” she pulled a face. I said to her, “You don’t believe me, do you?” She said I was right. “So you think that if you had a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion, things would have turned out different, right?” Right. “But did you actually have, at that moment, a bit more mindfulness or a bit more compassion?” Well, no. “So you did what you could with the resources you had available to you.”
That’s all we can ever do.
This perspective is deeply counter-intuitive for many people. We’re wedded to the idea that we could, had things been different, have acted differently. And it’s true that had we been a different person we would have done something different. But we weren’t, and we didn’t. So obsessing about an alternative version of the past is pointless and a source of pain.
We can talk about having free will, or the ability to choose, but in any given moment we can only choose from the limited options available to us. And at times our very ability to choose can be severely constrained. There are certain situations (panic, extreme stress) when the mind has great difficulty considering alternatives to pre-programmed courses of action: defense, aggression, retreat, paralysis. Our options can be extremely limited. Right now we might not be able to completely forgive ourselves, but we can take steps in that direction.
With practice we can learn to develop our mindfulness and our ability to stay in (or come back to) balance so that we have more flexibility in how we behave. We can increase the options available to us. But practice is something we do now, not in the past. And it affects how we act in the future and not, again, in the past. The past is past. You did the best you could with the resources you had at hand. The best you can do right now is to accept that what happened happened, and resolve to do better in the future.
2. DO THE RIGHT THING — NOW
When we’re caught up in regret and self-blame we’re focused on wanting to do the right thing — but in the past, which is the one time period we can have absolutely no effect on.
So focus on what you can do right, right now. This is the only moment you can directly affect. And how you relate to this moment determines your future happiness and wellbeing.
Self-hatred is toxic. It undermines us. It makes us miserable. It weakens us. The right thing to do right now is to bring as much mindfulness, compassion, forgiveness, and wisdom into this moment as you possibly can. To the best of your present ability, let these qualities manifest in you. You’ll be a better person as a result — not in the past, but in this moment and in moments yet to come.
3. BE A FRIEND TO YOURSELF
If you were witnessing a dear friend torturing themselves over past actions, what would you do? Would you tell them they must be a terrible person because of the mistakes they made? Probably not. Would you tell them they’re broken? I doubt it.
You’d probably suggest to them that it’s unhelpful that they give themselves such a hard time. You’d probably tell them they were making themselves suffer unnecessarily. You’d probably suggest that they be gentle on themselves, and that they let go. You’d probably tell them about the good qualities you see in them, and suggest that their mistakes don’t define them.
In other words you’d suggest that they relate to their past in a more wholesome way. So why not give the same advice to yourself now? Be a friend to yourself.
4. RECOGNIZE THAT YOU NEED TO FORGIVE YOURSELF IN ORDER TO FORGIVE OTHERS
The way we relate to ourselves tends to form the pattern of how we relate to others. If we have difficultly being empathetic and kind to ourselves we probably won’t do those things with other people either. If we judge ourselves harshly we’ll probably judge others too.
And the converse is true. If we want to be better to the people around us that we love — if we want to love them better — we need to work on loving ourselves better. Taking care of yourself, you take care of others.
5. LOVE YOUR REGRET
In Buddhist psychology, regret is a skillful volition. It’s a positive thing! Regret is what’s skillful in us encountering an ethical slip. Regret is a sign that you want to be a better person. It’s a sign that you have ethical values.
When we don’t understand this, we tend to freak out. When we experience regret we take it as a sign that we’ve failed, or that we’re bad. Because regret, although skillful, is a painful experience. And it’s natural for us to assume that when we’re in pain, there’s something wrong.
The important thing is to learn to deal with the pain of regret in a way that doesn’t cause us more pain. So we can understand that regret is a natural and important part of being a human with ethical values. We can be mindful of, and accept, the pain of regret. And we can be kind, supportive, and compassionate to the part of ourselves that’s suffering. In other words, we can practice self-compassion.
So these are a number of things you can bear in mind to help you let go of shame, regret, and self-blame. Again, there’s no magic bullet. You’ll make progress a little at a time as you gain insights into the pointless painfulness of self-blame and as you learn how to bring your focus more into the present moment.
And if you’re interested in learning more about forgiveness, please check out my online course, Forgiveness: The Art and Science of Letting Go, which is available from now until late September.