Forgiving someone after they have violated your trust or wronged you in some way is not an easy thing to do. Given enough time and effort though, you can usually find a way to forget the past and repair the relationship if the person is sincerely apologetic. However for some reason that I have never been able to figure out, while we can find it in our hearts to forgive others, we have considerably more difficulty forgiving ourselves. After we do something that we later regret, we are plagued by thoughts like, “I will never forgive myself.” and “I can’t believe I did that. It’s unforgivable.” These types of thoughts take hold in your mind almost immediately, and they can have a significant impact on the level of success and happiness in your life.
After my near death experience when I was 15, the way that I saw the world and thought about life changed considerably. While most of the changes that occurred were positive, such as appreciating life more, living in the moment, and trying to get the most out of every experience I could, there were also some negative emotions and thoughts that came about from this milestone in my life. One of these negative feelings was an immense feeling of guilt. You can read a more thorough account in my post, “I can’t,” but I felt that my cavalier attitude and selfish, teenage thinking contributed greatly to how close I had come to death. When I thought about all of the sacrifices my family and loved ones had made for me over the years, and the fact that I almost threw it all away by making a single poor decision, I felt extremely guilty. From that point on, I made every decision in my life based upon whether it was safe and whether it was what my parents would want, instead of thinking about what I wanted. I carried this feeling with me, and made most of my decisions this way, for almost 10 years, and it had an enormous, detrimental effect on my life during that time.
I had been living in Lawrence, Kansas, for a couple of years, and everything in my life was going pretty well. I was doing great in my classes. My research towards my master’s thesis was progressing at a good pace. I even enjoyed my job as a teaching assistant for a professor. I had lots of friends and got out at least twice a month for some fun. Despite the fact that everything in my life was going as well as I could have ever expected though, I wasn’t happy. I was just going through the motions to accomplish what needed to be done, but I was not enjoying my life. After bringing this up with my therapist, talking and thinking about it, and examining my life, I came to the realization that I was not living “my life.” Due to all of the guilt and pressure I had put upon myself for making that one bad decision a decade before, I was living the life I thought my parents wanted me to. I was going through life not even considering how I felt about a certain choice, because I was so focused on making my parents proud and respecting the amount they had sacrificed for me. In order to remedy this, I would need to find a way to forgive myself.
Thankfully however, figuring out what the issue was was the time consuming part, and with my therapist’s help I was able to come up with a plan to forgive myself, get my life back, and be happy. The first thing my therapist had me start doing was to make a conscious effort to ask myself how I felt about every decision I made. I didn’t have to change my behavior at first, just think about how I felt about it. As that became more second nature, I then started to alter my behavior based upon how I felt. Getting back in touch with my emotions and changing my behavior was only half the solution though. The difficult part was dealing with that enormous amount of guilt that I was carrying around with me. In order to get rid of it, my therapist and I decided that I would have to sit down with my family and explain to them how I felt, and what it was doing to me. I knew this would be difficult and emotional to do, but I wanted to be happy, so I was willing to try.
In order to create a safe, neutral atmosphere for me to share this huge weight on my shoulders, I asked my family to join me in a group therapy session. If you had been with us in that tiny office with two brown, overstuffed, leather couches and the sound of the Zen waterfall trickling in the corner, you could have cut the tension with a knife. I had not told my family or the psychiatrist (this was not my therapist) what I wanted to discuss, but I had said that everything was ok, and I just needed to share some things. After staring at each other for what seemed like hours but was probably about 10 seconds, the gray haired shrink turned in his high backed, leather armchair to face me and said, “Scott, you have the floor. You can say everything you have to say, and only after you are done will people be allowed to respond.” I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and started talking.
I am not sure exactly what I said or how I said it, because once I started talking it is all just a blur of intense emotions, but it must have gone well. I started out fearful and anxious about what they would think of me. Once I got going, I felt this surge of freedom and exhilaration at getting this colossal weight off my chest after 10 years. After I had finished
speaking and looked up at my parents, I felt a wave of sadness crash over me when I saw tears in the eyes of my mother. The psychiatrist said, “Liz, would you like to share what you are feeling?” Her response, which was reiterated almost exactly by my father, was a major turning point in my life. She dried her tears, took a deep breath and drink of water, smiled at me, and said, “Scott, you are my son, and I love you. Nothing you do, and no decision you make, will ever change that.You have grown into an inspiring, kind young man, and I am so proud of you. All I want is for you to be happy, and we all have worked too damn hard for too long to settle for anything less. Even if you think that I would not agree with your decisions all of the time, you have to remember that it is your life and your happiness, not mine, that is most important. Nothing will make me happier or more proud as a mother, than getting to watch you live a happy, successful life and achieve your dreams.” After hearing these words from my parents, it was like shackles that had been fastened to my heart were removed, and I was finally free to let my emotions rise to the surface again. I was able to see that they didn’t blame me for getting sick or think I was selfish. I realized that we all wanted the same thing, for me to be happy. And once I realized that, forgiving myself was easy.
Although it took me some time and practice to get re-accustomed to making decisions based upon what I wanted and how I felt after a decade of living for my parents, within a few weeks I was well on my way to being happy again. I still will take a moment to think about what my folks would think sometimes, but I do this as a way to maintain perspective and prevent my emotions from taking over, causing me to make a risky or bad decision. Most importantly, I no longer carry around a feeling of guilt. I wish I had not waited so long to do this, but I am so glad that I eventually did. As you read about my path to self forgiveness, I hope that you were thinking about your own life. What haven’t you forgiven yourself for? Don’t waste time like I did, and spend years just sleepwalking through life as you drown in your own guilt and shame. Take the time and find the courage and kindness to forgive yourself, because you “have worked too damn hard for too long to settle for anything less.”