Forgiving Yourself When You’ve Caused Someone Harm
This response was written to someone who made a mistake. Months before, he had slipped while carrying his girlfriend, leading to an injury and ongoing struggle with managing her pain. He was asking for help, advice, support…
First off, I want to thank you for sharing your story. The fact that you posted in the first place speaks to your courage, strength and basic humanity. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to support you.
The pain of regret hits you square in the chest sometimes. Especially when you’ve caused someone pain — regret can claw right under your skin and hold on tight. I’m so sorry to hear about the accident, and can only imagine the sorrow you might be feeling right now.
I’d like to share a few lessons I’ve learned about guilt, regret and being “stuck in the mud.”
To begin, forgiveness is such an essential life skill because it represents a victory of the heart over the mind. This is a profoundly important skill to build — letting the heart heal even when the mind can think of reasons not to — because it means you’re conquering one of man’s thorniest and most painful journeys: allowing yourself to be at peace, to feel free from suffering, even when your mind would just as soon make you suffer (as it does). Whether you’re a perfectionist obeying constant demands for improvement, or maybe an artist dealing with the bitter sting of self-criticism, one thing that ANYONE can tell you about is how they drive themselves crazy with thinking. The untamed mind is a wild beast, alas. And only the light of awareness and self kindness can keep it from gnawing us to death.
So, my first recommendation would be to use your girlfriend’s situation as an opportunity to practice radical forgiveness — for yourself, and while you’re at it, try aiming your heart at some of the people you hold grudges against. Turns out, they probably feel horrible about what they did as well.
In beginning to forgive yourself, your mind will protest. “NO!”, it snarls. “This is your fault! You don’t get to feel okay about this, you ****…” And so on. Painful as this is, it’s also an excellent opportunity to listen for the stories and beliefs that your inner critic holds about you. In truth, we all have certain “dominant selves” like the Pusher, the Perfectionist and the Inner Critic (see Hal and Sidra Stone) that convince us to believe that we deserve to suffer. And to keep suffering for days, months, years… To put it simply, you will keep suffering as long as your inner critic is running the emotional show, and as long as you believe its lies that you should be a perfect, flawless, irreproachable person who does no wrong and performs optimally at all times.
The difficult truth is that everyone must, over the course of their lives, turn and face this fierce critic voice, hear it out, mend the wounds that it is still holding onto, and turn it into a protector and ally. Until you’re able to heal your relationship with this critic voice, the suffering and “internal mud,” as you put it, will continue. Like I said — to let your heart heal even when your mind raises objections… this is a divine skill if there ever were one.
I also hear you saying that you “sometimes want to sit down and cry.” So I take it that you don’t, in fact, let yourself do that. Well, to begin, it might be helpful to think of your emotions as little underground creatures. Maybe snakes, gophers, underground gremlins… something like that. Now, the truth about emotions is that they need to be acknowledged before they can be released. If they go unacknowledged, they haven’t disappeared — they’ve just gone underground, going to work on your subconscious thoughts and your physical health. In this metaphor, your emotion creatures need to have light shined on them — the light of your awareness — in order to disappear. By recognizing, naming and expressing your emotions, you give them the attention and light they need to dissolve away (now that they’ve completed their mission). But if you ignore them, avoid them, reject them or otherwise turn away your attention, they’ll burrow underground and pull strings from below, outside your awareness. In psychoanalysis, this is known as repression, and can contribute to all sorts of emotional and physical problems like sleep disorders, anxiety, food addictions, and so on. The takeaway? Give your emotions the attention — the light — they need, and respond to what they’re saying, so they don’t cause damage elsewhere. In your case, this would involve sitting down, giving yourself some space, and really crying. Crying as much as your heart needs to. As much as your soul needs to. In letting yourself cry, you’ll be able to explore some of the stories and thoughts that inhabit you right now. You’ll be able to explore some of the harmful labels that you may have given yourself as a result of the accident — labels like “I’m so careless,” “I’m an idiot,” and so on.
Another way to channel the pain of this experience — and turn it into a gift, a service for the world — is to get curious about it, and learn more about how to support other people who are dealing with chronic pain like your girlfriend. If we can muster the strength to be curious about our pain, we can discover new motivation for helping others heal the same wound. The truth is, chronic pain is an enormously complicated topic, and hundreds of thousands of people suffer every year from ineffective treatments like opioids and unnecessary surgeries. This field is wide open for curious and motivated thinkers to study, learn, and invent new solutions, in order to truly relieve monumental amounts of unneeded suffering. Not to get too far out there, but you could LITERALLY make a decisive impact on the development of chronic pain treatments — that is, if it mattered to you, and you set your mind to it. So one of the most productive and redemptive ways of responding to your girlfriend’s accident is to learn about her pain (and yours), and use it as fuel to become a healer for those who are thrown into the same hurricane as you.
Finally, I think it’s important for you to get some space from the experience. It sounds like you’re spending a lot of your time taking care of your girlfriend — out of love, no doubt, and also responsibility for the situation. This speaks to what a noble, caring and thoughtful person you are. And these virtues will take you far. That said, I’m guessing you’re not giving yourself much space or separation from the situation — space to heal, to give your mind and heart a break, to enjoy your interests and hobbies, to spend time on other meaningful relationships. Maybe you feel… stuck in place? Guilty about the idea of taking a day, a couple days, a week off?
If this is the case, here’s what might be happening: in your whole-hearted desire to care for your partner and be responsible, you’re also shouldering an immense burden. Caring for an injured loved one is hard enough — let alone when you mix that in with feelings of guilt and self-criticism. This pattern — the “I’ll take care of her all day; my needs aren’t a priority right now” pattern — feels like the right choice at the time. And often, sacrifice IS very necessary. But it also comes at a cost: feeling burnt out, depressed, resentful towards the person receiving the care, and losing touch with the things in life that bring you joy. These are all very real consequences of “forgetting yourself.” And moreover, we often act like we’ve tried all other options, but we haven’t: I’m guessing there are relatives you can call on, or strategies you can think up together, to give you some precious time off while also making sure your girlfriend is safe and taken care of. For people who spend our precious energy taking care of others — casting our own needs to the side for another day — this is an important area of growth: realizing (and taking action as a result) that there is an abundance of help available around you, if you can be courageous enough to ask for it.
Finding freedom from heavy emotions is no walk in the park. It’s a quest we’re all continuously engaged in — your friends, your parents, me, my parents… Once again, I want to say that my heart goes out to you and your partner. I wish you strength, resilience and rapid healing moving forward. As best you can, take time to be with your emotions, and communicate them to one another. Those underground feeling creatures can’t grow nearly as quickly if you take the time to give them the attention they’re asking for. You’ll get through this, one day at a time — I have no doubt. And finding activities that bring you both joy — even with her current limitations — will help her (and you) heal: emotionally, spiritually, and yes — physically.
Wishing you strength and healing moving forward,