Early one autumn Sunday morning a 68 year old woman lost her life when she was struck by a drunk driver running a stop sign. The young woman who killed her was a local University student who’d done the responsible thing by staying the night at her friends’ house after having too much to drink. She got in her car the following morning, however, chalking her wooziness up to poor sleep and dehydration. “I didn’t even really feel hungover,” she told me later. The possibility that her judgment might still be impaired never even occurred to her.  Now, almost 25 years later, Shelly* has lived the majority of her life with the heartbreaking knowledge that she’s responsible for a family losing a loved one. 

Shelly’s story, while extreme, isn’t rare when you consider how many people live large chunks of their lives feeling they simple can’t, or rather, shouldn’t, move on. Worse, many don’t understand why forgiving yourself is important or even see it as unhealthy. Whether you’re in as dire a situation as Shelly or you’re merely convinced you’re wholly responsible for screwing up your kids through “The Divorce,” if you feel like you can’t forgive yourself here are a few things to think about that may help you move forward. 

one You’ll never have all the information you need to know “good” or “bad”

It’s in your nature to want to categorize things. After all, it’s how you learned about the world around you. Up and down, long and short. As you matured you saw that the world really isn’t that bifurcated after all. Short compared to what, for instance? Right and wrong is no different, though you tend to use words like “should” and “shouldn’t” when describing events. In the case of your mistakes you believe they shouldn’t have happened.

The only information you’ll ever have to make a determination about what should or shouldn’t have happened is your own, narrow perspective about the events at the time. You’ll never be privy to the larger picture. What events led up to that moment, for instance? Or what may have happened if the “event” had gone differently? How do you know the experience (as it happened through your lens) is the worst possible scenario when looking at the grand scheme of things? You don’t even have access to the grand scheme, let alone the capacity to understand it all. The truth is, all you know is that it was painful and you wish it hadn’t happened the way it did. But whether or not it should have…? You don’t know.

Whether or not the painful past should have happened is irrelevant. It did happen. That is the situation you’re dealing with. Acting as if you do know the “shoulds” of the situation, trying to wish away the outcome and beating yourself up over it is a disastrous waste of time, energy and your own potential for good. 

two Imagine the person you’d be without your story

Byron Katie asks, in Loving What Is, “who would you be without the thought?”

Take your most self-flagellating story – the one that plays on a loop and turns the volume up between 2 and 3am – and imagine yourself waltzing through life without that thought. Who would you be? What would you do? Who would you talk to? How would you sleep? What goals would you have?

Start doing those things. And start them before you feel ready to.

You’ll never be able to pluck that thought from your brain entirely. But visualizing who you’d be without it illustrates how much damage it’s doing rolling around in your head. It also gives you the chance to change it! Change or dissolve the story and mitigate ongoing hurt to yourself and others.

You’re not your just your checkered past. You’re also a shit-ton of wonderful things and capable of a beautiful future. Tapping into and focusing on the great things you’re capable of won’t make your painful history go anywhere but it will remind you that you’re made of more than just your mistakes.

The moment you start doing the things you’d do without the story is the moment you stop giving that story power over you and your future

three Let go emotional attachments to specific outcomes

Yup. You wanted “it” to go differently. It didn’t though.
If you could only be sure you did the right thing you could let it go. You’ll never know though.
If   ________ (insert name of person) could really understand why you did what you did then you could move on. They can’t. They won’t.

Needing things to be different than they are, impossible things especially, is a sure-fire way to keep yourself stuck. It may even be the #1 reason you can’t forgive yourself.  You’re attached to one “right” way for this to end and that “right” way is never going to happen. How many other possibilities have come and gone that you could have used to heal and grow through? You can’t even answer that question because, for the most part, the blinders of your inability to forgive kept you from even seeing them in the first place. 

Life marches on. You’re plugging in your hours every day. They’re haunted hours, I’ll grant you that, but you’re still forging ahead.

You don’t have to let go, to move forward…but it sure does speed things up. 

Give up the “truth” you think you know and find the potential perfection. Let there be more than one “right” way for this turn out. Trust in yourself enough to be stronger and do better as a result of your past (not just in spite of it). It is your hardships that make you stronger. You never know what machinations are working in your (and others’) favor. 

four Make room for BOTH guilt and relief, pain and pleasure.

Don’t judge or deny the guilt. Resistance will merely perpetuate it. Especially, if there’s even the tiniest part of you that believes your guilt is a penance of sorts or that you don’t deserve to move one.  Listen to it AND look for what else is there. Hope? Possibility? Relief? …. dare I say it … Joy?

Allow moments of laughter, for instance. If you immediately feel guilty for having the audacity to live wholly, introduce your pain to your pleasure. “Guilt, meet Relief. You’re very different but I know you’ll find a way to get along.” “Sorrow, this is Joy. Joy, this is Sorrow. You really need one another to fully understand life. Let’s figure it out, shall we?”  Let them get to know each other and make space for one another.

Scavenger hunt your strengths and possibilities and shut down the “yeah, buts.” Instead of, “I am strong enough to push through this. Yeah, but I don’t know how.” Let it be, “I am strong enough AND I’ll learn how.” “I’ll always feel terrible about it AND I’ll do more good moving forward when I allow happiness in and work from there.”

Give yourself credit for even spotting the moments where your un-forgiveness shows up. You can’t heal it if you can’t catch it.

I’ll never advise you to ignore your pain. I do encourage you allow other emotions in to keep it company though. Catch yourself being good, happy and strong. Give yourself credit where credit is due. Always.

five Reach out to others. 

Whether it’s about your type of perceived failure or something completely unrelated the power of a group is undeniable. And your vulnerability gives permission to others to be vulnerable too regardless of the specifics. People need you as much, if not more, than you need them.

When you find you can’t forgive yourself, DO something. Volunteer. Start a blog. Create a support group. Get out of the self-pity rut and contribute to something greater than yourself. This isn’t about making amends or paying off some karmic debt. This is about tapping into the strengths you have always had, finding the strengths that will pull you through this. And doing something that gives you absolute proof that you’re not just the person who made that mistake. You’re also this new and improved person … remember to make room for BOTH realities. 

 “United we conquer, divided we fall,” is a more than a military rallying cry. It’s a Universal truth. We need each other. Just make sure whatever you form is growth and healing oriented and not just wallowing in your own shit.

Forgiveness does not mean “it’s ok.”

The steps to forgiving yourself and others help you reclaim your energy from a past that cannot be changed and doing something great with it.

No one but you can fully understand why you can’t forgive yourself just yet. They’re not you and they didn’t go through what you went through. That’s why it’s so important for you to dive deep into your own process and your own gifts. Your job is to shift your mindset so you can reshape your future. When you’ve carried a burden so long you’re convinced you can’t forgive yourself the prospect of living without that shame seems impossible. I’m here to tell you that if you post these practices on your wall and do at least one a day for 30 days you will re-train your brain to operate from your strengths and a sense of possibility.

You are worthy.
You are forgivable.
You are capable of wonderful things.

It’s amazing how a few steps in a list can actually feel like a lot. Download The Squeeze right now to help you manage any anxiety that crops up. It’s my favorite go-to practice when I start spinning and my first recommendation for people who can’t shut their brains off at night. Lemme know what you think!

Triffany is a certified professional life coach who helps strong women tame their inner hot mess. Start with the book F.A.I.L.* to Win: 4 Simple Principles to Get You Out of Your Own Way and follow up with a class. Everything you touch will get easier as you go.