The Power of Self-Forgiveness

If I were to sum up 95% of what personal development gurus preach it would be this:

“You have the potential to do, have, and be anything you want.  All you have to do is adopt a positive mindset and take 100% responsibility for what happens in your life.”

I’m not saying that there isn’t any truth to the above statement, much of what I’ve written myself could be described as a deeper exploration of the ideas contained in the above two sentences. Recently, however, I felt that something vital was missing.

I realized that all of my motivation for bettering myself came from one chasing one great big carrot: “You can have anything you want” (You mean I can be rich and famous too?) and running away from one great big stick: “It’s all up to you” (Oh shit! I better start hustling!  Don’t want to end up in a van down by the river!)

When I looked deeper into these motivations all I could sense was a feeling of incompleteness, a feeling that I needed to be able to wake up at 5:00AM every morning, go to a dojo before sunrise and break slabs of concrete with my kung-fu.  That I needed every thought that ever passed through my mind to be a positive one, and that I needed every person I met to think that I was the most likeable person ever.  Until I had reached that level of excellence I was nothing but a work-in-progress, strung along by the idea that in the future I would be a better me.

With the incompleteness came the guilt and the fear. I felt guilty because I wasn’t able to tap into this “limitless potential” that all the gurus said I should be able to. I felt fearful and worried about what would happen to me should I not be able to do so. Whenever I didn’t accomplish what I had set out to do, I blamed myself for not trying hard enough or not thinking positively enough. If I only had the power to get rid of all my “negative thought patterns”, I would have been able to perform at my peak. Because I hadn’t. I had failed.

And I know that the self-help gurus also preach that we must, as the cliche goes, “treat every failure as a stepping stone to success.” Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.  When you’ve failed (or more rightly, labled your situation as a “failure”), it can be very difficult to see the big picture, to know that failure is not failure but simply the first step on a new path.  When I had found myself wallowing in the depths of what I had labled failure, I knew that I should be more positive and “see the bigger picture.” The fact that I couldn’t do so only made me blame myself more.

At some point, however, I realized that all the negativity, the worry, the apathy, the fear, and the anger that I might have felt was not really my fault. How could it be my fault? It was my genetics, my upbringing and my education up to this point that was largely responsible for my behavior, and not due to any conscious decision that I may have made. I then realized just how silly it was for me to feel ashamed at something that I had done or had failed to do. Why should I feel ashamed? The negative action or inaction that came from me was not “me” but rather the result of what some spiritual teachers would call my “conditioning.”

It became clear to me that what I had been doing was fighting my conditioning. I had been fighting the most futile fight of all: fighting what is.

I’m sure all of you have had this experience before. Let’s say you’re addicted to television. You know that watching too much TV is self-destructive, so you make a resolution to quit. One week later you find that you’ve downloaded every season of LOST and you’ve spent the whole weekend in bed watching one episode after the other, all the while shoveling pizza, ice cream, and doughnuts into your mouth.

Because you’ve resisted your conditioning, something that you have no control over, you are essentially pressing your body against a wall. Although you may be able to trick yourself into thinking that the wall is giving way, this is only temporary.  Eventually you’ll collapse due to wasted effort and surrender completely to your “negative” impulse. You fall into a state of apathy, a state where you’d like to resist what you are doing, but you no longer have the energy to do so.

Remember this: the wall is not “you.” You did not build it, and it’s not your fault that it’s there. It was built by the years of conditioning that you have grown to identify with as “You” or at least a part of “You.”

Even with the knowledge that your bad habits are not a part of who you really are, it can sometimes be difficult to dis-identify from them.  Don’t blame yourself for this either.  The tendency to blame ourselves for our negative thinking is also our conditioning.  If you get wrapped up in self-blame, you press yourself deeper into the wall.  There will be no way to see where the conditioning ends and You begin.

The only way to escape self-blame is, of course, self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is easier than you may think, even though some may perceive it as extremely difficult. After all, if your bad habits are not “you”, then you should have no difficulty forgiving yourself for them, right? When you forgive yourself for a negative emotion, impulse, or thought, you will have taken your first step away from the wall.  With this new perspective, you’ll notice that the wall you had been pressing yourself against all this time is only ten feet long.  Why throw your weight against it when you can walk around the sides?

When you forgive yourself, you’ll be able to observe negative emotions and thoughts from a distance.  If the impulse springs up to want to fight a negative emotion, forgive yourself for that impulse and observe that too.  As you observe you own thoughts, you’ll begin to see them in a much clearer light, to exercise “observation without evaluation” which J. Krishnamurti said was the “highest form of intelligence.” When you forgive and observe, most of the time you won’t have to actually “DO” anything for the negative feeling, thought or impulse to dissolve, it simply dissolves on its own, and all that is left, is you.

And what if you can’t forgive yourself? Then forgive yourself for the inability to forgive. Start from there.

Incredible Photo By: Laura Chifiriuc

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  • Kenji,

    Wonderful article. Self-forgiveness is self-love, which is self-acceptance. Total self-acceptance neutralizes any resistance that may be holding us in place, and allows us to move forward in our development. As long as we resist what is, whatever we are resisting will last into perpetuity.

    Rather than taking the following route: Awareness of “imperfection” —> effort to change –> acceptance that we cannot change because resistance always prevails I’ve found it to be more effective to take this route instead: Awareness of “imperfection” —> total acceptance —> effort to change —> new result/behavior/reality.

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  • Kenji

    Thanks for your kind comment Rahul. The awareness –> acceptance –> new reality path does make things a lot easier (When I remember to do it!). I still spend half of the time struggling when I know I should accept what is. It’s a progression, and we should forgive ourselves for being so anxious to arrive at the end of our journey.

  • DAMN! You nailed it!

    Believe me, I’ve been there. I know exactly what that state of “I’m not accessing that unlimited potential” feels like. A couple notes:

    -First of all, one of the beautiful aspects of forgiving yourself first is that it focuses on the abundance you already have. Conversely, the “be, have, and do” dogma displaces happiness/success/satisfaction into the future. It becomes this amputated ideal that we all strive for but can never achieve.

    -The missing link for me in this puzzle is to turn back toward the spiritual. In my case, that means meditation. It means re-connecting to ancient wisdom, not the talking points of motivational speakers with marketing savvy. And then once I’m grounded again in what already IS (not in an intellectual way, but in a deeper sense of a “lifted” consciousness that meditation brings about), I’m ready to tackle and wholeheartedly go after what can be- minus the guilt and negativity.

    Hope my two cents makes sense. Best blog post I’ve read in a while.

  • Kenji

    Welcome Travis. I appreciate your insight and kind words.

    Like you, I have found meditation to be a wonderful way to regain a clear perpective, to remove oneself from judgement and to, just see. 90% of the time I don’t succeed in doing this, but I do appreciate the clarity that comes with that 10%. I can only expect for this clarity to grow.

    I visited your site and I love the fresh perspective. I can totally see how your meditation has brought depth to your insights. I look forward to reading more.