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The Path to Self-Acceptance

When is it okay to forgive yourself?

Key points

  • You need to accept your past to forgive yourself.
  • Self-acceptance means owning a mistake and learning from it.
  • Expressing remorse should give way to rebuilding.
  • Learning about yourself leads to being a better person—and so feeling better.
Source: PICRLY

At some point, guilt has to stop. We need to accept ourselves, give ourselves permission to try being happy. After all, what happened, happened, and no self-torture will change it. So, it’s time to situate in the present. If no one else has forgiven us, at least we can. According the Second Law of Thermodynamics, nothing is forever, and that applies equally to putting oneself through the wringer.

Of course, sometimes we contrive an image of ourselves that’s so apparently real that no amount of self-forgiveness seems adequate. “I’m stuck with myself. It’s just who I am.” We collapse into believing ourselves to be flawed—maybe our parents belittled us, or we messed up so many relationships that we feel congenitally emotionally incompetent. The feelings become self-fulfilling; we withdraw; the world appears to confirm our convictions. We drift towards negativity. Even if there’s real truth in what we think, we’ve perfected the mechanism for making ourselves seem worse than we are. In trying to climb out of our rut, we dig ourselves deeper. So, the question is: is there any way to stop?

Yes, if you understand what’s going on. Studies show that we believe unfounded ideas when, for example, it’s easy to ignore good evidence to the contrary or we distort such evidence on account of anxiety. When we work ourselves up into believing the worst of ourselves, we’re liable to fall into both these states. To escape, we have to calm down. We have to try to look objectively at all the stuff that we’ve done right. Then, slowly, we have to try to unwind our negative self-impression. We can comfort ourselves that we have (at least) stopped the downward spiral.

I’m thinking about self-acceptance now because I’m thinking about Mr. Lauren.

Years before entering treatment with me, he’d helped a bankrupt client with whom he’d stayed in touch. “I thought I’d done something for the guy and that he appreciated it,” he said one day as we rehearsed his history.


What seemed to engage Mr. Lauren’s idealism led to his serious derelictions—not just in the eyes of his peers but, by implication, in his own eyes. It started when the old client sent him new ones, mostly with tough business problems. Mr. Lauren enjoyed the challenge. But he failed to see that some of these individuals were involved in illicit or even illegal schemes. When the authorities finally swooped in and uncovered what was afoot, Mr. Lauren was caught in the middle. The firm’s management went ballistic and demanded that he quit. Mr. Lauren’s reputation was sullied, if only because he’d failed to perform the due diligence required of any lawyer involved in business matters.

“I thought I was being so helpful. Shrewd, even. How dumb can you get?” He said he deserved what he got.

Mr. Lauren’s “crime,” if you want to call it that, was taking a leap of faith, ignoring the procedures that his firm had in place to prevent leaps of faith. He took the cowboy rather than the bureaucratic route, in part because he felt that he knew how he could help. He was a little too sure of himself—when he shouldn’t have been. He had allowed his ego to get in the way of common sense, his training, and the established procedures of an organization that had trusted him to follow those procedures. “I felt like I betrayed them,” he said.

But being clear-eyed about one’s actions, and expressing remorse, has to give way to rebuilding. It took months for Mr. Lauren to see that.

Still, a few people offered to help—at least insofar as they refused to participate in Mr. Lauren’s perpetual self-takedown. Some even casually mentioned firms that might be interested in entrepreneurial guys who had, perhaps, “matured,” as they delicately put it. After a while, and after we spoke repeatedly about his next steps, he took the plunge: he began sending out carefully worded letters to carefully researched firms that seemed like they wanted to take on the world. There was no more time left to sulk. Besides, he had to put on a suit in the morning and present a confident face.

Eventually, it paid off. The self-acceptance that he finally achieved was made up of practical considerations, i.e., he allowed himself to get on with life. He got to work, ditched the cockiness, tried to be more of a team-player. He allowed himself to feel productive again, but within parameters acceptable to his new firm and his profession. If he wasn’t sure what to do, he’d ask someone, rather than just relying on instinct. For Mr. Lauren, self-forgiveness meant acting like a renewed person, like someone who’d learned his lesson and was putting into practice what he’d learned.

It took time, of course. As we worked through the process, he expressed surprise that he wasn’t making great moral decisions about how he’d behaved. This made things easier. “I’m turning self-forgiveness into a series of practicalities,” he told me. “I know I behaved badly,” he said, “but the cure isn’t so much repentance as it is acting like a person transformed.” This was a stunning insight. He didn’t have to keep indulging in anger at himself—which, perversely, he thought would make him feel better—when he could just act as if he knew how to behave better. In fact, he had learned and now did know better (and as a consequence felt better).

Maybe this wasn’t back where he had started. But, in effect, he had translated grieving about himself, which was ultimately static, into productive, forward-looking actions that were self-redeeming. He didn’t forget how he had acted, but he had learned and was moving on.

In pursuing happiness, we have to calibrate where we have been with where we wish to go so that we can take the necessary steps along the way. We can’t just will ourselves to be another person; we can’t just forgive ourselves and pretend that the past will have no effect on the present. Rather, we have to allow the past to work for us constructively so that we can learn from it and effectively move on.

In this sense, self-forgiveness is not a clean break with the past. It requires an informed continuity, understanding, and, ultimately, an initiative to employ the past to our present advantage.

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