Learning to Forgive Yourself – Showing ourselves love and compassion

Reading Time: 7 minutes

This week I have done a total overhaul on my office work space.

I’d love to say it was purely from a place of productivity and freeing myself of distractions, but in truth it was also a form of procrastination.

Oh the irony of the modern age; using productivity tools and practices as a way of procrastination.

Terminal procrastination is one of my less than desirable traits. But more on this shortly.

As I sorted through drawers and endless lever-arch folders, it reminded me of walking through the ruined streets of Pompeii. Dreams and aspirations of a whole city laying broken and petrified in all of their incompleteness.

But here in my little office, no one had died. This was not a terminal existential event. It was me figuratively walking through the streets of my dreams, my plans, my business ventures, my projects and the dawning realisation that they didn’t happen.

It’s a ghostly place, the city of your unrealised dreams. And as I perused files and notebooks dating back decades, I was momentarily faced with feelings of sadness and shame.

Sadness from the sense of loss. Loss of experiences that never happened and the loss of that spark that filled me with such fervour when the ideas formed in my eager mind.

Shame, because this became a noticeable pattern in my life. The seed of an idea or aspiration was planted and I watched with delight as it began to grow. But somewhere after, I stop watering this shoot and watch in knowing dismay as it withers and dies.

It’s taken me many years of personal work to dig down into myself to try and understand why this happens. This is work in progress for me and may in fact be my life’s work.

But that sense of sorrow and shame that hit me as I ‘filed’ these piles of paper into an awaiting bonfire, acted like an alarm bell.

The biggest gift my practice of daily meditation and journaling has given me is an increased ability to ‘notice’ my thoughts and emotions occurring. This noticing allows me the split second pause to make the decision to simply feel them, rather than be swept away by them.

And today, as I paused to notice the sorrow and shame, I was reminded that our past does not define us. Never! It is merely there to inform us in the now. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it.

Think of your emotions as the dashboard warning lights of your mind. They are neither good nor bad, just an indication that something may need attention. It’s only when we ignore the warning lights that the problems occur.

shallow depth of field photo of steering wheel

On seeing my personal warning lights flickering on I realised that I was carrying a huge amount of baggage surrounding my past ventures and business ideas.

I’ve been self employed for nearly 20 years, yet it wasn’t until last year that I considered myself an entrepreneur. One of the key lessons that I learnt was that ‘businesses fail, but entrepreneurs don’t’.

But I had sought my identity in the businesses I had started, and so every time one ‘failed’, I felt like I had. I then took that shame and sense of failure to the next venture. Lo and behold, it never got easier, the stakes just felt like they had gotten higher.

So in my clear out revelations I understood that I needed to forgive myself for my lack of follow through in the past, for my low sense of self worth, and for all the elements that were out of my control.

Unless I could clean the slate by forgiving myself I might not be able to break the endless cycle of the past.

It was at this point that I was reminded of the excellent book by Kaval Ravikant, ‘Love Yourself Like Your Life Depends On It’

This is probably the book I recommend most to others. It’s so simple you could easily disregard it. But it’s in it’s simplicity that it’s power lies.

One of the practices Kamal describes is a letter of forgiveness to oneself. So that is what I did.

Being in the grandeur of nature always helps me to put things into perspective. Whether it’s the majesty of an ancient woodland, the lofty splendour of the mountains, or the lulling ferocious dichotomy of the ocean, nature has a way of making me feel both insignificant and yet a vital part of the whole.

Nature is the ctrl-alt-del function to my central nervous system.

So on a rainy Sunday morning I took myself off to the beach to reboot myself and get some quiet, mental reflection.

I sat in my car, watching the wind, rain and waves living out their purpose in life, and I thought about my shame, my regrets, my mistakes and my failures.

I pulled out my notebook and wrote myself a letter of forgiveness.

Every aspect of myself I was less than pleased with, I forgave.

I forgave those times when I was oversensitive, insecure and fearful.

Every time I felt I was unworthy, sub-par or mediocre, I forgave myself.

The countless times I use inappropriate humour to mask my low self worth and insecurities, that left me cringing the following day, I forgave.

The times when I have been cruel, both accidentally and maliciously, I forgave.

The seemingly endless times I am a dick, I forgave myself.

The mistakes, bad choices, and weaknesses of resolve, I forgave.

My failures, unrealised potential and lack of follow through, all of it forgiven.

My self criticism, self disgust and nasty self talk, written off with forgiveness.

By the time the first line was written, the pen seemed to dance across the page of it’s own volition.

Until I started writing this letter I had no idea how much I held against myself, and how much this weight of blame and shame pressed down upon my shoulders.

It’s worth noting the language I used. When I wrote the letter I did not write it in the first person, as in ‘I’ and ‘me’, but instead referred to myself as ‘you’ or ‘Glenn’, for example ‘I forgive you for being a dick, Glenn’.

This may at first seem a little weird, and if this is inhibiting you then just continue in first person. But it does have merits that are grounded in research. The work of Professor Ethan Kross has suggested that by using non-first person language in our self-talk we may be able to create some emotional distance in our minds allowing us to better deal with stressful situations in a more rational way. Basically, it helps to sidestep the very emotions and limiting belief patterns that may be causing the problems in the first place.

Once I’d finished I read the letter aloud to myself, multiple times.

Now it was time to let this all go.

lake with green leafed trees

I’ve always strongly felt that everything is part of nature, and that when it has served it’s purpose it is reabsorbed back into the system.

Kamal Ravikant chose to wrap his letter in a rock and return it to the sea. You could also burn it, letting the wind carry it off to the sky. Or you could bury it in the ground to let the earth work it’s indomitable actions upon it, as it does with all things.

The choices are endless, but the point is the same. You are releasing all of this burden. You are wiping your slate clean.

brown wooden framed chalkboard

Once I had relinquished all that I had been carrying, I walked along the beach, battered by the wind and sea-spray.

I felt lighter. I felt refreshed; reinvigorated.

It felt like I had freed up some internal space for me to move again. No longer crammed in, I could stretch out again, free to explore my new boundaries.

I walk back to the car to write myself another letter, this time one of love and support.

Now that I had freed up some mental and emotional space I could devote it to showing myself some love and support for the coming journey. A pledge, if you will, to love and support myself regardless of my future ‘failings’ and the mistakes that I will inevitably make.

So much of my procrastination derives from that fear of failure, reinforced by the shame of never feeling like I had fully succeeded in my ventures. It’s a vicious cycle that spirals downwards endlessly, becoming a self fulfilling prophesy.

high angle photo of spiral stairs

My hope is that by showing myself the compassion and forgiveness that I need, I will break this cycle.

This whole exercise is hugely important as it allows us to create a degree of separateness from ourselves, seeing our past as simply that, the past.

If your friend came to you with your exact same issues you would counsel them with love and compassion. If you spoke to your friends the way you speak to yourself you’d likely have no one to speak to at all.

And we have to live with our own thoughts and opinions everyday, all day.

It’s high time we demanded the love and compassion that we give to each other for ourselves.

I am making no claims that this is some kind of panacea for all our mental and emotional quirks and struggles. Neither am I assuming that what works for me will work for you.

But if nothing else, I do believe it is a very helpful and useful thought experiment, a means of exploring our own relationship to our thoughts and emotions.

For me, it has been a way of wiping the slate of my own limiting belief clean, even if only for a second. We cannot stop our thoughts any easier than we can stop our own hearts.

The slate of my mind continues to fill itself up, and I will have to revisit this practice in the future, I am sure.

But the more I do this and other similar practices (such as meditation and journaling), the more I notice the slate behind the chalk words of my thoughts, emotions and limiting beliefs. And the more I notice the slate of my mind, the easier it is to realise that the thoughts, emotions and limiting beliefs are temporary, no more robust than chalk dust on the slate.

So maybe it’s time to give that slate a wipe and make room for next phase of your journey.

man in red polo shirt standing beside chalk board

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