Why is it that once we realize that we’ve done something wrong (or wronged someone), we often add to it by piling on an endless cycle of regret?
We carry it like an albatross around our necks for months, or even years, long after the event has passed, or the person has forgiven us and moved on. So why is it so hard to forgive ourselves?
Perhaps the more pertinent question to ask in these situations is what can we do to enable the process of self-forgiveness? While countless books have been written on the subject, there are typically 3 basic tenets you might follow to forgive yourself:
You Cannot Turn Back Time, But The Future Is Still Unwritten…
Whatever Cher says, you can’t “Turn Back Time”. Life offers us many opportunities for regret. Perhaps you stayed married to someone who mistreated you for ten years when you should’ve walked out after three. You came out of the closet at age 60, instead of at 30 and feel you’ve squandered the best years of your life living a lie. You turned down a great job offer in New York to appease your family and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is now gone.
Regret inevitably rears its ugly head, slowly simmering, turning to anger, and finally hardening into bitterness. You replay the situation repeatedly, with no end in sight and no resolution. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Yet we all do it to some degree; it’s perfectly human to wish for an alternate ending to a bad situation. The problem is when it paralyzes you, holding you hostage from being able to move ahead in your career, relationships, or life.
While you can’t change the past, the future is still unwritten. You can take proactive steps to make the best of your situation, and create new opportunities. Instead of revisiting what happened, envision how things will change and what will happen going forward. Write it down so it’s concrete, and revisit this new future regularly when those old feelings crop up. Give yourself a different outcome.
Treat Yourself Like You Treat Your Best Friend
If your best friend comes to you and says, “I really screwed up.” or “I wish I had/hadn’t done…” do you reach across the table of the coffee shop, gently squeeze their hand, and in a kindly voice say, “You’re right, you’re an absolute bastard. What’s wrong with you? Nobody likes you,” or “Yes, you should’ve taken that job, you’re useless. Only a loser would waste such an opportunity.”
My guess is probably never. Yet, how many times have you said similar horrible things to yourself that you would never in a million years say to your friends? I’m guessing there are many vigorously nodding heads reading this right now.
It’s difficult to prevent the negativity from creeping in, but one good way to stop it in its tracks is to talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend, with compassion, kindness, and understanding.
Revisit the above chat with your friend; maybe their behavior was awful at the time, but they feel remorse, and have apologized. As a friend, you would cheer them up and help them sort through their feelings, not pile on more guilt and shame.
Be that same friend to yourself.
You Can Only Change You
Sometimes, regret is deeply rooted in the attempt to change someone else’s behavior towards you. In other words, you’ve done something terrible and have been trying to get absolution from the wronged party. But what if they don’t want to forgive you? They may not be ready, and they may never be ready.
Or, conversely, what if you were wronged, and the opportunity to forgive or repair that relationship is lost forever through death, or that person moving away, or moving on with someone new? Then what? Do you live with the lost opportunity for the rest of your life, beating yourself up on a daily basis? No, of course not, so stop doing it. You can only change YOU.
It’s often easier to forgive someone else, than forgive yourself, but this is what you need to do to move on. Waiting for the other person to say “It’s OK, I forgive you” emotionally traps you in time. It’s like living a snippet of your past life over and over again, kind of like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day.
Likewise, hanging on to anger and allowing the situation to become one of regret is like drinking a small amount of poison every day. It does nothing to help you, the situation, or the other person, and in the long run, makes you physically and emotionally ill. Stop drinking the poison.
Mistakes are our teachers, especially the painful ones. Incorporate those lessons into new possibilities for yourself. Acknowledge what went wrong, or what you could’ve done differently, but instead of dwelling on it, turn that passive brooding into an action for the future. Forgiving yourself doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen, but by doing so, you have the capacity to move on and make better choices.