Rebuilding: To Forgive Myself

As I progress, I am looking at many different sources of inspiration for ways to move forward. If you have any great inspirations, be sure to share them in the comments. 

You can see all the steps along the journey here

 – Leo

One of the first things you find in the assorted posts and books and talks on relieving stress and becoming more content in your life is that you need to be able to forgive yourself. For example, I had read the article “100 Ways To Overcome Stress” and sure enough, there it was:

1. Forgive yourself for every mistake you’ve ever made.

Now, I understand the idea here. But every mistake? Whew, that’s a tall order.

I am an imperfect being. We all are. Just trying to think of all the mistakes I’ve made is a daunting task. But there are some doozies.

But what I’ve had to really do is understand what the phrase actually means: “Forgive yourself for every mistake you’ve ever made.”

The literal, analytic, numbers guy part of me looked at that phrase and said “Wow, that’s a lot of forgiving. I should probably make a list. I need a lot of scratch pads.”

It actually wasn’t until I started writing this post that the other, and more helpful meaning came to me. That I can forgive myself these mistakes all at once. That I can simply accept that I am human, I am fallible, I am imperfect, and as such, I have made and will continue to make mistakes.

This has been a tough one for me in the past as a rule. In one case, I carried around the guilt of being an ass to someone I actually cared about from nearly twenty years. And when I finally was able to apologize for it, she told me she didn’t even remember it. Twenty years. How much did I limit myself, how much energy did I have wrapped up in guilt over something that she didn’t even remember. And yet, I remembered it strongly enough to apologize for it twenty years later.

How much did I limit myself, how much energy did I have wrapped up in guilt over something that she didn’t even remember.

I have made many mistakes. I try not to repeat them. Some are difficult to learn from, and some result in outcomes that are so painful that it’s hard to even think about them now. And yet, I have to somehow find a way to forgive myself. For all of them.

I’m not sure I know how to do that.

Part of that comes from the fact that I feel I should learn from the mistakes, and by forgiving myself it’s like saying I don’t have to worry about the learning. I can’t abide that. But that’s because I haven’t quite been able to separate the mistake from the lesson. Intellectually, I can see how the mistake should be forgiven, because the lesson is its own event. Forgive the mistake, learn the lesson. Two different things.

I think part of me is still working from that corporal punishment, shaming mindset that if I make a mistake, I’m somehow less of a person, a failure. This got drilled into me when I was a child. Here’s an example:

When I was about 10, I was responsible for making dinner on many nights. On one particular day, I read a recipe that said I needed to add 1 cup of boiling water to the ingredients. I took our 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup, added a cup of water… and placed it on the stove burner.

I then witnessed a lesson in physics. If you heat something made of thick glass quickly on a burner, the glass in contact with heat will expand much more quickly than the glass that is not. This results in a rather impressive shattering of the glass. The Pyrex measuring cup was no more.

I went into panic mode. Maybe, if I replaced it before they got home (they being my mother and her boyfriend), they wouldn’t notice. And I had enough time to get dinner done anyway. I hopped on my bike and started hitting every little store I could.

And not one of them had the 2-cup measuring cup. None. So, in my 10-year-old mind, I did he next best thing: Buy 2 1-cup measuring cups.

The solution is as simple as it is daunting: Forgive.

I look at it now and laugh. It made mathematical sense. But practical sense? Not at all. But I raced back home and made dinner with my newly acquired pair of measuring cups. When the adults got home, I still got in trouble. I was berated for being so stupid as to put the measuring cup directly on the flames. And what was I thinking buying 2 of the same size?

So, my initial mistake was not forgiven, and the attempt to correct it was not only unappreciated, but ridiculed. You can see where this would foster a sense that mistakes cannot be tolerated. And that has translated to my dealing with relationships. When they come apart, I see all the mistakes I made, and I have a hard time forgiving them. The old recordings play in my head. “How could you have been so stupid? How did you not see this coming? If you hadn’t…” And so on.

But forgive is what I must do. As I have been going through all my self-exploration, I realize more and more how my inability to forgive my mistakes has manifested itself in things like how I parent my child. I stress out because not only do I see her make mistakes, but I internalize them as a failure on my part to teach her the lessons she needs to learn. So, I not only don’t forgive myself for my mistakes, but I take on responsibility for hers as well. And that added stress reflects in my relationships.

The solution is as simple as it is daunting: Forgive.

I have to come to a peace with my mistakes, and accept that I made mistakes, that I am human, and I will make more. And that it’s ok, and that making mistakes does not make me a horrible human being. It just makes me human.

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  1. / ReplyRebuilding: The Other Forgiving - Leo Soderman
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