“If all the world hated you and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.”– Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre
I think at the very epicentre of self-acceptance is self forgiveness. None of us are saints, we all have done something we are not proud of. Being petty, vicious, and even cruel is a part of every story. Every saint has the sinner in him as surely as there’s some good to even the evilest person on the planet. We are all shades of grey. Recognizing this is an important step in self-acceptance. You see, your ‘self’ isn’t just all the aspects of you that you like and embrace. It also comprises all those parts that you shun, hate, regret, or are embarrassed about. For true self-acceptance, you need to accept the good and bad.
But what about the things you’ve done that feel you can never forgive yourself for? What if your doings caused other people deep distress? What if in the world’s eye, you are a sinner? How can you absolve yourself then? I’ve thought about this a lot at different times in my life. I do think that the ‘lighter’ your doings, the easier it is for you to practice self-forgiveness. The bigger the sins in your eyes, the harder it is to put your memories behind you and accept yourself as a lovable person. The deeper the hurt I cause another person, the deeper the wound it cuts within me. How do you get yourself to the position where you can absolve yourself? Here’s the process I’d recommend:
Accept the truth
Isn’t it funny how ‘acceptance’ is the first step in resolving basically anything? You can’t hope to do much if you don’t make peace with whatever it is that you’re having difficulty forgiving yourself for. A lot of times, we tend to go into circular thinking when considering past events where we think we acted poorly. ‘I shouldn’t have said that. But I said that only because that person said this…’. Acknowledge the part of others in whatever happened, but accept your part too and stay with that. Let whatever others did fade to the background. If you regret doing or saying something, stay with that regret. Don’t push any of those emotions away. Stay with them and let it all sink in. If you think others hate you for what you did, let that sink in too. Remain with the truth of it all.
If you are the guilty party, whether or not the were others guilty too, seek forgiveness. Sometimes you aren’t in a position to speak or approach someone directly. They might have passed on, they might not be in speaking terms with you, or the event might have happened a long time ago. Sometimes you might have to ask forgiveness of your own past self. Let’s say that you were assaulted as a child and are super guilty that you yielded to coercion. In that scenario, write a letter to your child self saying that you understand that he was a mere child and did the best he could in the situation. If you are angry that you hurt someone years ago, write a letter to them telling them how sorry you are, and seek their forgiveness. You needn’t actually send the letter – just write it.
Make your ‘list of good deeds’
There’s a lot of good to you. There is to every person on Earth. You need to show yourself that. Take some quiet time to journal about all the stuff that you did that count as ‘good deeds’. It can be as small as smiling at a stranger to as large as saving someone’s life. Better yet, make a list of good stuff that you did for the other person involved. If it was during a certain period of your life, make a list of positive things you did during that time. We tend to develop a myopic vision of ourselves as villains when we feel guilty or self-loathing. You need to show that the landscape is grey and not pitch black. You need to start seeing yourself as a whole package.
Resolve to redeem yourself
When I think about redemption, I’m reminded of the story of Angulimala who was a cruel brigand that killed people ruthlessly. The scariest part about him was the string of fingers he wore of the people he murdered. That fetched him the name Angulimala or ‘one who wears a garland of fingers’. As fate would have it, he meets Gautama Buddha who shows him great compassion and that a life of redemption absolves even the cruelest of deeds. Angulimala then goes on to become the foremost of Buddha’s disciples and a saint, spreading peace and love in the world.
Sometimes, the only way we can ‘clear the slate’ is by doing things that will help us see ourselves in a better light. If you’ve spoken harshly, resolve to speak kindly. If you’ve been cruel, resolve to show kindness. If you’ve been fast to judge, resolve to give more chances. Sometimes, going down the wrong path puts us on the path of the greatest good we can do for the world. Redemption changes you for the better and makes self-forgiveness possible.
Resolve to forgive yourself
You are as deserving of your forgiveness as others are of your good deeds. Charlotte Bronte was right. It matters not what others think about you, it only matters what you think about yourself. Resolve to absolve yourself, even if it’s going to take time. If you continue to reproach yourself, it will become a weight you that drags you down despite all the good that you may do externally. It won’t allow you to be and do all that you possibly can. Remember that the past is in the past. You did all that you could to make things right. Now turn your back on it firmly and look ahead. It’s possible that the world still condemns you. That person you wronged all those years ago might still look at you with eyes full of hurt and accusation. Your friends might still cold-shoulder you. You can’t let any of that define who you are today. Know in your heart that you are worthy of a life of love, joy, and more. Fully come to peace with yourself and resolve to live your life, unencumbered by the shackles of the past.
Here’s an excerpt from the book Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I want to end with this because it captures the complex subject of self-forgiveness in the most beautiful and thought-provoking way. Each time I read it, it stirs something deep in my soul and gives me the strength to forgive myself. I hope it does the same for you.
“What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”― Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail