The regret follows you.
Regardless of what you’re doing now, you’re also reliving then.
You wish you could stop. Rewind. Redo. Since you can’t, you replay. Again and again. It’s like a form of penance.
But what if there were a better way? A way to not only give your past mistakes meaning, but to make sure that you move beyond them in the future?
There is. But it might not be what you’re thinking.
The Man Who Thought He Didn’t Deserve Forgiveness
I’d like to introduce you to Johnny. He didn’t believe in forgiving himself either. In fact, that was one of the points he led with early in our relationship.
Johnny was one of my community college students. He walked into class the first day equal parts swagger and regret. He had a mohawk, multiple facial piercings, and white supremacist tattoos covering eighty percent of his body.
He let all of us know the first day that he had recently been released from prison, and that he had a long history of gang involvement and drug use.
The other students were intimidated. By the second day of class no one sat within two seats of Johnny in any direction.
That had been his goal.
He didn’t really think he belonged in college. And he wanted to be the first one to make that clear.
But the funny thing was, even though Johnny carried his past with him like a flag, he actually wanted desperately to do something different. To become someone different.
Have you ever done the same thing? Held onto your past as a defense against your past?
It doesn’t work.
There is a natural human tendency to go to our old habits, especially at times of insecurity or regret. But if the old habits were part of the original problem, it just sets you on an endless repeat loop.
To build a different life, Johnny had to let go of the past. And to do that, he had to decide that he deserved a different future.
Forgiving Yourself Through Making Amends
Johnny confided that he was stuck in his twelve-step addiction recovery program. He couldn’t progress any further, because the next step required that he forgive himself, and he just wasn’t willing to do that.
He had hurt people. Therefore, he thought he deserved to hurt as well.
He told me stayed up at night sometimes wondering, for example, if an old woman whose home he had invaded was still traumatized. If she could sleep at night. And if she couldn’t sleep, why should he?
It’s a fair question.
If there were a way to take her insomnia (assuming she experiences it) on himself, that might be fair restitution. And making amends where possible is an important part of healing from our past mistakes.
But he had no way of knowing if she actually experienced insomnia, and no way of taking it from her if she did.
He wasn’t making amends. He was tying himself to the past in a way that ensured he would repeat it.
Be searchingly honest with yourself. Input from a trusted outside source can be valuable here.
- Have you done those things that you should have done to make amends for the behavior you regret?
- Would any additional action you could take be welcome and helpful to the other people involved?
- Would any additional action you could take help you better live your newly earned wisdom in the future?
In Johnny’s case, he had served his allotted prison time and made a commitment to living differently, including leaving behind gang involvement and substance use. Further contact with people from his old life might have been frightening to them, and it might have pulled him back down the same old path, so he avoided that.
Instead he was trying to build a different life by going to school and building relationships with different people. But his focus was still so far in the past that his efforts weren’t working.
How to Stop Letting Guilt Anchor You to the Past
Johnny was my student in a series of three term-length courses. During that time, he followed a predictable pattern.
He worked hard, trying to power through his doubts and the burden of regret he carried with sheer determination.
It worked—for a while. But inevitably the weight of everything he was carrying caught up with him. That’s when he just disappeared. Sometimes for a week. Sometimes two.
To his credit, he always came back. He kept trying. But I could tell when he had fallen off the wagon, because the weight of the guilt he carried was visibly heavier when he finally made his way back into class.
It wasn’t a pattern that honored the people he had hurt in the past. It was a pattern that tied him to his past mistakes like an anchor, and it increased the likelihood that he would hurt more people in the future.
His effort to honor the victims he had injured by ruminating about his mistakes was setting him up to create more victims.
As hard as it was for him to accept, his best chance to make amends was to move forward with a productive, healthy life. And that included forgiving himself.
Three Myths About Forgiveness to Let Go of
Does Johnny’s history of violence seem unforgivable to you? Or do you have your own seemingly unforgivable history? If so, there There are 3 myths about forgiveness that it might help to clear up.
- Forgiving means I’m okay with what I did: Forgive yourself, not your action. In retrospect, certain choices are just wrong. Hang onto the wisdom you have gained, while understanding that you are now a different person for having gained it. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
- Forgiving means it will happen again: Self-forgiveness frees you from the emotional bonds that tie you to your old behavior. The idea isn’t to escape accountability. If there are actions you can take to make restitution for your mistake, take them. Then shift your emotional energy towards building a healthier future.
- Forgiving means forgetting: Deep enough regret won’t just be forgotten. But memories can live on transformed into pain or into healing. Which do you want to bring to the people you touch? If your focus is on pain, that is what you will carry with you to everyone else.
Once you understand what forgiveness is, and you have taken accountability for your actions, it’s time to heal through reframing your story.
How to Heal Through Reframing Your Story
Imagine the events of your life like individual points drawn on a piece of paper. Your story is the way you connect the dots through those points. The same events can be drawn together into very different stories.
Are you a victim or a hero? The difference is how you frame the story. Every hero’s story includes struggle, adversity, and failure. The part that makes it interesting is how the hero moves beyond those experiences.
If you haven’t moved beyond the painful parts, it means the story isn’t over yet. You can design an ending of resilience, strength and triumph. (Or you can give up give up. But why would you want to do that?)
The same is true for creating meaning from the mistakes you made. You can use those mistakes to build something inspiring and good, or you can hold them close to you. You can’t do both.
You can’t build something positive while constantly undercutting your own efforts. If you are serious about making amends by making something better, you have to be willing to shift your focus. Shifting your language can help you do that.
How to Forgive Yourself Through Changing Your Self Talk
We all have regrets. In the words of Loren Ford, “Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from poor decisions.” Your responsibility is to set yourself up to use your wisdom effectively in the future. Here are three ways your self-talk can help you do that:
- No more would have/could have/should have. Once you know what to do differently in the future, that train of thought isn’t helpful anymore.
- Tell yourself it is what it is. Dwelling on the past won’t change it. Positivity and hard work are your best chance to change the future.
- Remind yourself that you did the best that you could with the knowledge and resources you had at the time. Commit to what you know to be a better course for the future.
Remember, the goal is to build a life where those past mistakes aren’t repeated. The best way to travel anywhere is to look where you are going. When your thoughts drift to past regrets, refocus them on the positive future you are building.
Why Forgiving Yourself is the Unselfish Thing to Do
The last I time I heard from Johnny was when his new wife tracked me down on campus.
He was working long hours at a steady job to pay for her education, she said. They had a child together. He was maintaining his sobriety. “He’s so unselfish,” she gushed, describing his efforts to help her build a future career.
And he was. He had finally given up his stubborn focus on his past. And it allowed him to build a future for other people.
Are you ready to be unselfish?
The regret is heavy, and you are tired.
There’s a part of you that liked it that way. Keeping yourself uncomfortable felt like a small form of justice. It’s what you thought you deserved.
Except you had it all wrong.
Because the most important part isn’t punishing yourself.
It’s creating something better. In your life. In the lives of people around you.
Anyone can sit motionless and feel sorry for themselves, repeating the same old mistakes in an endless cycle.
You want something different. You are ready for change that makes a difference, and you will do whatever it takes to get there.
Including forgiving yourself.