5 tips to help you move on from regret and guilt
He'd forgiven her years ago, but now she sat with him in my office in abject misery.
"What I did was despicable!" Her strong Irish brogue grew harsher. "I sinned that day and I hate myself for it!"
Joan had never forgiven herself and her psychological self-flagellation was now threatening the very marriage with the man who still loved her deeply.
"What did you do that was so terrible? What was it that you find it hard, even now, to forgive yourself?"
What she said next took me off guard. "I stabbed my husband! And all these years I've felt this overwhelming guilt."
Joan had been a model wife since the "stabbing incident" and her husband loved and appreciated her despite the squabble twenty-eight years before that had ended up with him in hospital – knitting needle in arm - not too badly injured, but injured nonetheless. He wanted her to forgive herself so they could both move on, but she just couldn't seem to. And now they both looked at me for answers.
It's (still) all about you
Guilt, shame, self-reproach; she had it all and some to spare. And as her husband said to her despairingly: "It's not even about me anymore, it's all about you!"
Do you find it hard to forgive yourself for something? Forgiving yourself isn't the same as 'letting yourself off the hook' or not taking responsibility. Rather, it's accepting when enough self-reproach is enough. Because after a certain point it can become (as Joan's husband pointed out) almost a form of masochistic self-indulgence.
Here are some ways to help you forgive yourself and move on.
1) Look for mitigating circumstances
Self-forgiveness doesn't mean making excuses; rather, it's about finding understanding. So ask yourself: What state were you in? When we are very emotional, we are, for a short time, 'not in our right mind'. Were you:
- Unduly stressed?
- Not in full possession of all the facts?
- Acting from the position of having suffered a very difficult past?
Again I'll emphasize mitigating circumstances aren't excuses but possible causes for past actions.
Joan told me she had been bullied at work and her husband's heavy drinking (which he'd since stopped) had contributed to her "snapping". Compile your list of significant factors that may have contributed to your past behaviours.
2) Are you being blackmailed?
Think whether you've found it hard to forgive yourself because other people have had trouble forgiving you. Consider: Are they using this as psychological blackmail with which to manipulate you?
Joan's husband genuinely wanted Joan to forget about it and move on. He even said at one point: "You know I deserved that stabbing! I was such a pig!" But one man (who himself had been unfaithful many times throughout his marriage) found his wife had had a brief affair and now, years later, still used it against her daily, pushing her 'guilt buttons'.
Have you found it difficult to move on because someone else is trying to stop you? Remember you were and are only human.
3) What were your intentions?
Ask yourself: "Did I mean to cause pain to others or myself?" None of us can always foresee consequences to our actions.
Consider whether you meant to harm others, because we can all make mistakes. Of course, Joan was so frenzied that she had no intentions at all except perhaps to end her frustrations. But what you meant to do and the effects of what you did may have been sharply at odds. If you did mean to harm others, then consider this...
4) When's your release date?
I think this is what really made the difference in helping Joan finally begin to forgive herself. Late in the session I looked at her squarely and asked:
"Joan, realistically, how long would you have been imprisoned for had you been convicted for attacking your husband twenty-eight years ago? What kind of punishment, had he pressed charges, would you have been looking at, do you suppose?"
She thought long and hard. "I don't know...maybe five years, maybe less."
I then suggested, "You have imprisoned yourself for twenty-eight years. Tell me, when is your release date?"
For the first time during the session, she laughed. "Years ago, I suppose; in fact, I'm overdue my release!"
If you'd been 'convicted', what would your punishment have been? And when is your punishment due to end, do you think? Decide today. With Joan, we actually set a date for her release. But to do this, we had to apply the next self-forgiveness tip:
5) Create your own self-forgiveness ritual
Yes, you read me right. Rituals are vital for us, a powerful way of demarcating the end of one thing and the beginning of another; hence weddings, bar mitzvahs, funerals, and such. These rituals are important in helping us 'put a fence' around stages in life, and many of us have lost a sense of ritual in our lives.
That very day I asked Joan and her husband both to devise a 'forgiveness ritual'. She chose to write down on paper what she had done to her husband all those years before and place that paper in a tin in which she'd kept her knitting needles. She'd apologize and sign this 'document'. She'd then, with her husband in attendance, cast it into the Irish sea near where they lived.
So, a week later, having written her apology but also her declaration of 'self-forgiveness', they walked out to a jetty and cast the signed statement into the waters. Joan later told me that as soon as the paper disappeared beneath the waves, she felt a tremendous burden lift from her. She felt free for the first time in decades, as I'd suggested she would.
Devise a simple ritual to mark your release from self-punishment.
Self-forgiveness and moving on
No matter what you've done, you can make a good life for yourself and others.
In the 1960s, British politician John Profumo caused the so-called 'Profumo affair', which led to his own resignation and possibly the fall of the government at the time. But in the decades after this scandalous disgrace, all the way to his death, he did so much good.
Shortly after his resignation, Profumo began working as a volunteer, cleaning toilets at a charity hall in London. He worked there for the rest of his life, eventually becoming chief fundraiser, raising large sums of money for the organization and totally turning it around.
The social reform campaigner Lord Longford said he "felt more admiration for Profumo than for all the men I've known in my lifetime".
We don't have to be defined by one act or even one period of our lives. In the same way that a person shouldn't rest on their laurels after one heroic act of goodness, feeling that now they don't have to make any efforts, a person shouldn't base everything on one action or one part of their life.
We all need to move on.
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