What if I really have done something wrong?

Sometimes, “embarrassment” doesn’t cover it:

We’ve cheated, lied, or manipulated someone to get ahead.

We’ve behaved recklessly or irresponsibly, endangering others in the process.

We’ve cause someone—our ourselves—seemingly irreparable hurt.

We look at what we’ve done and we think “I’m a terrible person.”

And the more we believe this, the more we despair of ever becoming better. We identify so strongly with this negative view of ourselves that we lose sight of the possibility of being otherwise. How do we forgive ourselves and move forward free of shame and filled with hope?

The temptation is to distance ourselves from our choices. We make excuses like “that wasn’t really me,” or “I was having a bad day and they provoked me,” or “I’m just made this way, I can’t help it.” And when we do that, we lose the power to choose differently in the future.

The first step comes with owning our actions. When we deny what we’ve done, we hide it from ourselves until we split our identity into two people: the person we wish we were, and the person we fear we are. And the more we try to hide that second person under a bucket (“That wasn’t me, I’m not usually like that,”), the more afraid we are that someone will call us out for the horrible person we truly are.

On the other hand, if we can say to ourselves “I had control over my actions and I chose to do what I did,” then we can also say “I have control now, and I can choose differently.”

What we’ve done in the past doesn’t have to govern who we are today. If we can acknowledge our past self and do what we can to repair the harm we’ve caused, then we can find a way to look toward the future with hope.

Iris Proctor
Iris is the director of ArborWoman.