On Forgiving Yourself

President Biden suggests that giving up on a dream is unforgivable.

Posted Jan 27, 2021

no author given/pixabay, creative commons
Source: no author given/pixabay, creative commons

President Biden’s powerful pronouncement on forgivability—“Failure at some point in your life is inevitable, but giving up is unforgivable”—is clearly meant to motivate and inspire. Ideally, it should encourage increased resilience for those inclined to give up when what they’ve been struggling to succeed at hasn't yet materialized.

But similar to other rallying cries that argue for adopting a more stalwart, persevering attitude, despite its positive, well-meaning intent, Biden’s message oversimplifies reality. So taking it literally could be precarious. Why? Simply because there are many instances when it makes good sense to simply abandon a pursuit when, intuitively, you’re getting a message from deep within that putting further effort into achieving a coveted goal will almost certainly be futile—and possibly self-defeatist and demoralizing, too.

It’s a matter of knowing how to read the writing on the wall. When all available evidence indicates that putting more effort into something won’t enable you to succeed, your wisest judgment may be to divert your attention onto something else—not out of anxiety but foresight.

Pursuing Lofty Goals Requires Courage and Resilience

When achieving something arduous isn’t beyond your capacity if only you can convince yourself to give it your all, it makes sense to summon up your reserve energy and vigorously go for it. Even if there’s a good chance you’ll fail, if failure would carry only minimal costs, why not go for it? Or if the potential rewards of succeeding are truly monumental, it may be worth further investing in it, regardless of the odds not in your favor.  

What this all comes down to is that, yes, it might be difficult to forgive yourself if you back out of something because of fears of failure you later realize were distorted or exaggerated. For if you recognize that striving harder for something might really have been advantageous to you, then having let yourself be run, or overrun, by irrational anxieties can impel you to become angry and censuring of yourself—as well as guilty and ashamed.

It’s been said many times that when someone is on their deathbed, they’re less likely to have feelings of regret for the many wrongheaded things they did in the past than the things they—or their anxiety—kept them from doing. Maybe that’s why the advice “be bold” has become so popular nowadays. And note that such daring is about taking full benefit of the various opportunities life presents you with.  

In general, people who succeed in life do so principally because of the resilient way they react to failure. They believe that “practice makes perfect” or better, that progress is far more important, and attainable, than perfection. They’re willing, perhaps even eager, to put themselves on the line and take risks in order to further their growth. And it’s also true that with enough grit and determination, most of us might transcend our relatively modest expectations and reach goals we weren’t at all sure we could achieve.

On the Other Hand ...

If you appreciate that what you’re pursuing—or even thinking of pursuing—is finally a pipe dream, or frankly beyond your capability, then it’s only prudent not to continue going after it. And it’s also judicious to avoid tackling something when the cost of failure could be so exorbitant that it’s not worth the time, money, or energy to devote yourself to it.

True, if the object of your desire is so dear to your heart, so intimately connected to your most cherished ideals, you might nonetheless decide to chance it. But anything short of that ought to act as a deterrent.   

Unfortunately, there are many instances in which what you want to receive—or achieve—is beyond your grade level. So despite your most ambitious efforts, it will remain forever out of reach. As I put it in an earlier post:

There are many times when your lofty ideals must bow to inescapable reality. Times when you have to make peace with constraints you’re enduringly “afflicted” with. Aspirations that, genetically or temperamentally [and, I might add, environmentally], will remain off limits for you. However much your attitude may shift, or how empowered you may feel, your inborn limitations will still define—or at least, circumscribe—what you can expect to do, or be.

It’s like continuing to run behind someone once you’re aware they’re much faster than you. It doesn’t really matter how intensely you try, you’ll never catch up to them. You could keep running in the hope that maybe they’ll fall, and so enable you to beat them. But unless they have a history of awkwardly stumbling or slacking off, that’s hardly a good bet.

Or take the poker-game guidance: “Know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.” Finally, that gambling mantra is about using your best judgment to decide how to optimize the odds of your succeeding, or at least avoiding a foolishly misguided failure.

Qualifying Biden’s Advice

But finally, getting back to the Biden quote, as much as I agree with him in spirit—that we should all act courageously and endeavor to transcend present-day limits (especially if they’re irrationally self-imposed), I think it’s yet essential to add some restrictions to his aspirational counsel. And perhaps the most important one pertains to what I’ve emphasized in my writing for over a decade now.

Which is that enduring happiness relates mostly to developing unconditional self-acceptance. This most ambitious of goals exist independent of life circumstances. And given the inevitable conflict of needs prevalent in intimate relationships, no one can offer you such acceptance but yourself (and perhaps your dog).

In such a context, to see giving up on something as personally unforgivable is to put a condition on your positive self-regard. So I’d like to end this piece by stressing that whatever your limitations might be, and whether they relate to inborn limits or limits deriving from defects still present in your programming (which might well be rectifiable), it’s still possible—and advisable—to forgive yourself.

Not that if you try you can’t do better in the future, but that you’re in a far better position to do so if you start with the most positive, self-affirming attitude possible. And there’s nothing more positive than fostering a compassionate, all-accepting perspective toward yourself. (As in, whatever I did was the best I could do at the time, but next time...)

In the end, my guess is that Biden (or now I should more appropriately say, President Biden) would agree with me. Because his well-demonstrated empathy wouldn't allow him to shame anyone for giving up on something they honestly concluded they couldn’t make succeed.

© 2021 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.