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How to Make Friends With What You Did

or Dinner with Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky has been in the news recently, which reminded us of the time we met her at a friend’s dinner party in London, England. As we left we thought about how tough it can be to move on in life beyond difficult or challenging times, such as Monica had experienced when her life played out in the glare of the world’s media.

Forgiving ourselves for past transgressions is one of the hardest things to do, as none of us get it right all the time. Imagine how boring it would be if we were all perfect and we never did anything wrong! We are here to learn and grow, not to be perfect. Perfection is really just our ability to see our imperfections.

In a recent workshop, we asked how many people were carrying some personal guilt or shame for something they couldn’t forgive themselves for. At least three-quarters put up their hands. One participant, Leila, had been looking after her daughter’s dog when it unexpectedly died. Leila’s grief was compounded by guilt and remorse. As she described this event it sounded very recent, so we were surprised it had happened many years earlier, yet Leila was still unable to forgive herself.

Guilt for what we have done stays with us long after the event: I am such a bad, hopeless, useless, awful, uncaring, hurtful, unlovable person who never gets it right. We think that through our guilt we are somehow redeeming our wrong doing, when in reality all it does is create more suffering. Blame follows guilt: How could I have done such a thing? How can I ever trust myself? How can I ever be trusted by anyone else?

And that’s the biggest reason why we need to forgive ourselves. Holding on to past guilt or shame hurts us, not anyone else, and it doesn’t change what happened one iota. Here are six different reasons to forgive ourselves:

1. Forgiveness is not the same as forgetting

Everything we have been through is logged inside us, like an airplane’s black box. So forgetting something is not really an option; no matter how hard we try, it will always be lurking around the corner, waiting to drag our emotions down again. On the other hand, forgiveness accepts the presence of the dreaded deed, it looks it full in the face and says, ‘Yes, I know you. Now let’s have tea together and get to know each other better.’

2. I don’t always get it right

Forgiving ourselves is not the same as forgiving what we did. A bad or rotten act is just that, and no amount of forgiveness will change it. But nor does constantly blaming ourselves. For instance, Monica made some obvious mistakes – but to continually blame herself will get her nowhere fast. What we can do is to really accept what we did while forgiving that part of us that was unaware of what we were doing or how it would impact other people; the part that just doesn’t always get it right.

3. Accepting ourselves, warts and all

When we do something wrong we immediately berate ourselves or try to find redemption through shame, remorse, and even self-hatred: “I am such an idiot,” “My stupidity ruined everything,” “I am so hopeless.” Forgiving ourselves is the opposite. It’s a radical acceptance of ourselves just as we are, mistakes and all, so that we can know ourselves more deeply and honestly. It is only through such self-acceptance are we free to love and laugh again. Remember: Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly!

4. Letting go of the drama

This is one of the hardest things to do, but holding onto the story and the details of that happened is like putting up a smokescreen that clouds our mind and stops us from seeing we are more than the event, whatever we did is not the whole of us, and we can let it go. We can put the story down. We don’t have to hold on to it, or keep repeating it in our minds. We can say: “I made a mistake, but I am not the mistake, not the failure, it is not the whole of me.”

5. We can learn so much from our mistakes

By getting to know who we were we have the chance to learn from what we did. We can become our own greatest teacher by seeing how mistaken we can be, even when we fully believe we are right. Mistakes show us we are human. If we don’t acknowledge our blunders, then we’re not only blind to our own failings but much more likely to repeat them.

6. We are not who we were even a minute ago

The cells in our body, as well as our thoughts and feelings, are constantly changing. We are literally not the same person we were a minute ago, let alone a day, a month or a year ago. As we are no longer who we were when we did the deed, so we can bring forgiveness and hold our past selves with kindness and compassion.

Forgiving ourselves is an ongoing process. Every time we criticize or blame ourselves for being hopeless, useless, wrong, stupid, for all the self-dislike and self-denial, for believing we deserve the bad things that happen, that we must have done something wrong to be so abused, for thinking we should have known better, that it was all our own fault, that we were asking for it, for rejecting ourselves, for abandoning ourselves, for ignoring or denying our own needs and feelings, we can simply say, “I forgive myself.” We don’t need to create more guilt, shame, or blame—the world has enough already.

Here is a short practice to do:

Sit quietly, aware of your breathing, and silently repeat, “Whether through my words or my actions, if I have created any suffering for another, I forgive myself. If I have created suffering for myself, I forgive myself. May I be happy, may I be filled with forgiveness and love.”

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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