How to forgive your guilt: A self-forgiveness exercise
I still feel guilty about it.
Here’s what happened:
I’m 10 years old and there’s two crisp $1 bills hanging off the edge of the table next to me. We’re putting our coats and I grab the money and shove it in my coat pocket. As I’m about to step out the Pizza Hut door, a hand falls on my left shoulder.
When our behavior conflicts with our values we feel guilt.
Sometimes guilt can resolve itself with an apology, other times guilt can work it’s claws into us, causing us to ruminate on our actions for years. That’s when the guilt gets dangerous. When past guilt interferes with present living.
I turn, look up, and find a brown-eyed waitress, with curly brown hair, like a bird’s nest hair. The kind of high-hair that was popular in 1990. She’s wearing a red and white striped shirt with a red collar and black pants.
“Do you want to give me back the money in your pocket?”
Mom and her friend are distracted– talking, walking to the car. They don’t know I’m still inside Pizza Hut. About to wet myself.
Without words and with a trembling hand, I pull the money from my pocket, hand it to the waitress.
“You’re lucky I don’t tell your mom.”
Little did she know that I would. 30 years later. In a blog post about guilt.
Let me be clear–the 1990 Pizza Hut incident is not my greatest source of guilt. Far from it. But writing about yourself is tricky business. I have to withhold certain stories for the embarrassment they might bring to people I love. I hope you understand. So I’m using the Pizza Hut incident, which was a real incident, one I obviously still remember with striking clarity, as an example of how we carry guilt like a wheelless suitcase through the years.
Question: what would you say to me if I said I’m still feeling guilty for attempting to steal two dollars from a Pizza Hut waitress 30 years ago? You’d tell me to get over it. It’s been 30 years. Move on.
You may even try to rationalize– no harm, no foul. The money was returned. And your mom never found out.
And you would be correct. The situation was resolved as quickly as it happened.
But that’s my story, it’s my suitcase and, as easily as you could advise me to drop my suitcase, I could say the same to you.
As time goes by, like pounds, we gain guilt-weight. We try to hide our guilt. We buy bigger sweatpants. And we wear those sweatpants to every occasion–formal or not.
Lets be honest. Most of our conflicts are internal, not external. Our unwillingness to let go, forgive, and move toward happiness is the cause of most of our problems.
Brene’ Brown, famed research professor, believes that guilt is good. Guilt causes discomfort and this discomfort often results in “amends, reflection, or real change.”
Wouldn’t it be nice to forgive yourself, make amends, and move on from the guilt you still carry? To finally let go of the secret pain we hold on to?
So how do we do this?
An Exercise for Forgiving Guilt
As a kid did your parents ever make you write an apology letter? It was the worst. With every stroke of the pen, humiliation and shame and terror punctuated your little, rapid-beating heart.
Remember how writing those letters made you feel remorse for what you did?
That’s because taking action is the only way to resolve your guilt. This is why when you criticize your wife’s cooking you bring her flowers the next day.
Inaction will galvanize and harden guilt and prove difficult to wash away as years go by.
Writing an apology letter to yourself about something you feel guilty about is a healthy way to begin forgiving yourself.
When you write a sincere apology letter to someone– you picture that someone. Your objective. And by holding this objective position, you feel compassion towards them. What if you did this to yourself? What if you looked at yourself a compassionately as you look as someone you wronged?
So what should a good self-apology letter consist of?
1. Address yourself by name (Dear Jay,)
2. State specifically what you are sorry for ( I am sorry that I stole 2 dollars, 30 years ago, from a Pizza Hut waitress.)
3. Detail the event. Be specific. Colors, smells, sounds, etc.
4. What did you learn from the event?
5. Moving forward, how do you intend to use this event to improve your attitudes, actions, and/or behaviors?
A good apology letter exhibits vulnerability and sincerity. Two emotions we often prevent ourselves to have. As Reverend Desmond Tutu wrote, “the solution for guilt is found in doing.” An apology letter to yourself about past mistakes might be the “doing” that you need right now.
Reconnecting to Yourself in a Coronavirus World
Given the remoteness of our current world, it’s so easy to become disconnected with yourself. Writing an self-apology letter is a way to reconnect to yourself.
Self-forgiveness, according to Dr. Everett Worthington, “involves making a decision to connect back to value-based living.” And living in quarantine, the daily value-quagmires we often find ourselves in are not there. And so we don’t get the daily exercise of flexing our moral muscles.
Writing a self- apology letter is a way to connect back to yourself and your values.
Choosing to forgive yourself for something you feel guilty about does not validate your actions. However, apologizing to yourself will help you enter the present as opposed to lamenting the past.
Forgiveness is journey. Forgiveness requires courage, patience, and practice. This quarantine season, take time to write an apology letter to yourself. This practice can provide much needed healing and connection.
Also, in case you’re wondering, after the Pizza Hut incident I’m 99.9% sure I never stole anything again.
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