Many of us continue to live with guilt over past mistakes. Here's how to start being free of that.
My personal motto should probably be Mistakes Have Been Made. Maybe I can have it translated into Latin and enshrined on a coat-of-arms right under the figure of a rampaging bull.
Some of my past choices and desires have been so misguided as to be comical. So too, rude or thoughtless things I’ve said to other people and ways I’ve treated them. I look back on the person I was in the past and know that he is me. In many ways we’re the same — me and that past person. In other ways, though, we could not be more different.
There’s a fine line between taking responsibility for the past and dwelling on the past to the point that it results in ongoing shame and guilt. If we don’t remember our mistakes we can’t learn from them or make amends, but if we completely define ourselves by our worst moments, refusing to forgive ourselves and move on, it will sabotage the future.
The role of pride
As a priest, I encounter this often in the confessional. People come in and re-confess old sins that have long since been forgiven. They continue to struggle with shame and cannot let it go. The problem with this is that, if God has already forgiven us, it’s inappropriate that we refuse to forgive ourselves. What God has taken away we have no right to continue clutching. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the refusal to forgive ourselves is a form of pride.
We become addicted to feeling bad. It makes us feel special, as if we are uniquely transgressive, unforgivable rebels. It’s the fantasy of becoming an anti-hero, like the condemned yet tragically heroic characters that are popular in movies these days. I wonder if, after a while, we get so used to living with the shame that we are not sure what to do without it, so we clutch onto it like a safety blanket.
St. Francis de Sales has the wise insight that the worse we feel about ourselves, the more likely we are to act out that negative self image again and again. Partly because we fall captive to the false identity and partly because the sin itself is committed as an attempt to feel better. This is why unresolved guilt makes us more likely to sabotage ourselves. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. The secret to freedom is self-forgiveness.
In a strange way, it’s far easier to forgive other people than to forgive ourselves. I know for a fact I’m harder on myself than on other people. How many times have I mentally called myself stupid? Or held onto self-anger for a silly mistake? If I said those same things to another person or held a grudge against them they way I do against myself, they would take offense, so it doesn’t make sense to speak that way to myself.
We owe ourselves basic human kindness. It’s the first step towards trusting that we can actually be forgiven and don’t have to remain trapped in the past.
So how do we actually move forward?
The first step is to take responsibility and name the mistake. I remember a remarkable moment when I was in a poetry class at Yale. Our teacher, Harold Bloom, who was at the time an august and esteemed older professor, was in the middle of talking about a Hart Crane poem when he paused and told us in a moment of extreme vulnerability that he couldn’t remember a single moment in his life that he hadn’t felt guilty — but he couldn’t quite figure out why.
So often this is the case. We crash around, breaking all our toys, acting thoughtlessly, speaking crudely, making a mess, and then cannot figure out why we feel so bad. It’s impossible to forgive what we do not identify and name.
Once responsibility is taken, it’s important to feel the guilt and acknowledge that it is appropriate to feel bad. Allow the guilt to motivate you into making a confession and forming an intention to change.
Now, here’s the part we struggle with the most – once confessed, forget all about the guilt. Let it go. Forgive yourself and don’t be ashamed. The sin isn’t who you are anymore. If amends need to be made, they should be made joyfully.
Yes, mistakes have been made, but they’re just that – mistakes. Every new day is an opportunity. Allow yourself to live it, forgiven and free.