Letting go of guilt

March 1, 2015 -- Living City

Letting go of guilt
Forgiving others is tough enough, but what about forgiving ourselves?

By Nancy O’Donnell

Disney’s hit “let it go” from Frozen is a great song. If only it were that easy when it comes to forgiving and forgetting!
It’s often difficult to forgive someone when they’ve wronged us. It can be even harder to say we’re sorry when we are in need of someone else’s forgiveness. But what about forgiving ourselves? What happens when we get stuck, thinking about something we’ve said or done that we wish we could take back or undo?

“Letting go of past mistakes — your mistakes and the mistakes of others,” wrote American psychologist John Berecz, “means dumping your excess baggage — those trunks filled with shame and guilt about your own inadequacies and mistakes, those suitcases of bitterness and hatred toward others.”

Some guilt is healthy. You can have regret for what you did, yet accept that you’re human and made mistakes. Perhaps you did your best, given your circumstances, awareness, maturity and experience at the time. That is a healthy, humble attitude.

There are several factors that make it either easier or harder to forgive — and forget. These include our own self-image and personality, combined with the specific characteristics of any given situation. Our personality is formed through the complex interaction and intertwining of biological and environmental factors, which is why children raised in the same family may be so different from one another.

A highly exalted sense of self, a need to be perfect, or at least to appear perfect to others, makes it much more difficult to accept limitations or faults.

Do you know someone who finds it almost impossible to let go of a mistake they’ve made? They re-hash it over and over, talk about what they should have done or said, and wish in vain that they could turn the clock back. They tend to be what we call “black and white” thinkers: if I do something bad, then that makes me bad. Self-forgiveness would give them a way to a new beginning.

“Without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover,” stated philosopher Hannah Arendt in 1958. “We would remain the victims of its consequences forever, not unlike the sorcerer’s apprentice who lacked the magic formula to break the spell.”

This inability to evaluate our own actions, resolving the inner conflict that ensues when we do or say something that is at odds with the person we think we are or should be, can prevent us from reaching the necessary inner understanding that would allow forward movement to take place, growth within ourselves and in our relationships.

Blaming ourselves — or others
At the other end of the spectrum, there are those who seem to believe that everyone should understand their failings, as they do, and are able to chalk up their mistakes to good learning experiences, without necessarily considering the impact of their actions on others. They find excuses and “move on” without reflecting on their behavior. They too, for obviously different reasons, are unable to derive growth-fostering learning from their mistakes by passing over them too superficially.

Most of us fall somewhere in-between these two extremes. If we are more empathetic toward other people or have learned to take full responsibility for our actions and the need to accept consequences for wrongs done, we tend to have a harder time forgiving ourselves. If instead we fall into the group of those who see ourselves as victims of circumstances when we find ourselves in trouble, we may blame others or external factors for the problems we’ve created.

Those who utilize this kind of rationalization are much less likely to engage in the kind of introspection needed to understand what they might improve or to acknowledge that they might owe someone an apology.
The specific characteristics of any given situation influence our ability to forgive. These situational differences are wide-ranging and include the level of harm we have inflicted on the other person, how important the relationship with the other person is to us, and how clearly we understood that what we did or said was wrong.

For example, is there a difference between driving over the speed limit and driving while intoxicated? Both are against the law, but the potential for serious harm to others makes the latter example a less “forgivable” behavior. Certainly persuading a person to buy a vitamin for $20 that he or she doesn’t really need causes a different level of harm than convincing him or her to invest a huge amount of money in an overly risky fund.

Culture, too, should not be overlooked in situations. Different cultures have different actions that are considered unforgivable. These differences have a profound impact on our relationships with others, especially when conflicts arise.

There are some mistakes I’ve made that I truly wish I could undo, at times because the consequences continue to affect relationships that are important to me. But I’ve learned that it holds me back if I dwell on things that I cannot change. It blinds me from seeing positive things I can do in the present.

Healing and growth
Forgiveness (of self or others) is an essential element to any kind of healing process. In fact, we could even define forgiveness as the process of letting go of past hurts and mistakes, a process that is liberating and allows us to continue to grow and develop. It takes courage to face our limitations, our less-than-perfect actions, to accept and go beyond these limitations.

One sign of maturity is thought to be an honest assessment of yourself with your abilities and limitations. It includes the capacity to set realistic goals for your life. Yet for many of us this kind of self-acceptance is at best fleeting, because of unhealthy guilt or shame.

So healthy guilt over something wrong that we’ve done can move us in the direction of more mature behavior. Shame, instead, is pervasive and non-productive. It has its roots in our failure to forgive others for wrongs done to us (resentments) or to forgive ourselves for past mistakes (regrets). If we allow it to keep a hold on us, this state of mind erodes our sense of well-being.

The benefits of making a mistake, acknowledging it and moving on, include a growth in the ability to understand others’ failings, an increase of empathy. The capacity for empathy is a key element in successful forgiving. In fact, it’s practically impossible to talk about forgiveness without looking at relationships. Mutual or reciprocal forgiveness, or reconciliation that resolves a conflict or a misunderstanding, strengthens relationships and leads to personal growth as well.

Learning how to forgive oneself and others is a vital part of our human development. Growing in our ability to both give and receive forgiveness, even if at times others are willing to forgive us before we are ready to forgive ourselves, will bring us closer to the kind of fulfillment we all strive for, allowing us to experience the kind of happiness that remains, even in the midst of adversity.

Nancy O’Donnell, Psy.D., is a psychology professor based in Loppiano/Italy.