Forgiving Yourself

forgiving yourself

I am a critic. To some degree, we all are. We criticize our co-workers when they do a bad job. We get upset when our friends don’t come to our aid. We lament that our family doesn’t understand who we have become. It can be particularly hard to forgive someone else if they have done a terrible wrong against you. Relationships suffer, loneliness ensues, and it takes a lot of time to heal these wounds.

But even harder than forgiving someone else, we struggle to forgive ourselves.

Take my friend, Mr. Tanaka. Mr. Tanaka and I taught English together in a Japanese high school. This was my first job out of college – a teacher’s aide for English classrooms in Japan. I would help Japanese teachers promote the learning of natural English and in exchange, I would get to live in Japan for a few years. Thrust into this strange new culture, I wound my way through a world with a new language, new social rules, and new friends.

Even amid the newness, Mr. Tanaka was different. The other teachers were politely cheerful. Mr. Tanaka was gruff, almost mean. He yelled at a young female student once so loudly that she cried in the teacher’s room. He told me he hated English, and yet, he insisted that we study Time magazine articles together to increase his vocabulary. He seemed bored in the classroom, letting me run the show and reading in the back of the room. He became animated, however, when he took me out to lunch (on his dime) to teach me about Japanese culture.

I could not understand his contradictions, and to be honest, I really didn’t try. He was an old Japanese guy. I was a young American female. I labeled his odd behavior as uniquely “Japanese” and forgot about it. He was self-centered and chauvinistic, probably a result of having grown up in post-war Japan. It was all too easy to dismiss, so I did.

After two years of teaching, though, I needed to return home for postgraduate studies. Mr. Tanaka took me out to lunch one afternoon, again footing the bill. We ate at one of a hole-in-the-wall place and ordered the “special,” eggs and ketchup over rice.

Mr. Tanaka knew I had a fiancé and asked if I wanted kids. I told him that I did, and without thinking, I asked if he wanted them too. Then I remembered I was talking to an old Japanese guy who had no wife and immediately balked. What a stupid thing to ask on one of our last days together.

He grew very quiet. I told him not to answer. Instead, he pulled out his wallet and showed me a wrinkled, over-exposed photograph. A boy, not more than 6, squinted at the camera in front of a quaint little Japanese house.

This is my son, he said.

I must have looked shocked. He never mentioned a son or a wife. So he explained. He had been married for several years. They had been happy at first, but over time, their relationship suffered. Instead of facing his marital problems, he became immersed in his job and studying English. His wife, tired of the marriage, asked for divorce. In America, custody hearings would ensue, dividing the child’s time between father and mother. In Japan, the mother almost always gets full custody of the child. He hadn’t seen his son in 7 years. He tried to attend his middle school graduation, but his ex-wife berated him, telling him if his son wanted to see him, he would find his father as an adult.

I told him that was terrible. He must be so angry at his wife.

No, Mr. Tanaka said. She was right to leave him. He should have been more attentive. He should have sought marriage counseling. He listed a dozen ways he could have saved the marriage and failed.

He wasn’t mad at her. He was mad at himself.

I haven’t seen Mr. Tanaka in several years, but we still write each other. I still try to teach him new vocabulary and I ask him what movies he’s seen. He likes to ask about American politics and occasionally sends a Time article for me to read. He’s still trying to master English, as penance perhaps, for a marriage lost.

I wish I could tell him it wasn’t his fault. Remember that fiancé I had? I married him and divorced him too. I wrote Mr. Tanaka about the divorce, explaining the mistakes I made and how I worked hard at forgiving myself. How I drew courage from his story to get through my own marital troubles. He never responded to that letter, but I hope he read it. If I’m lucky, in a corner of his heart, he forgave himself, just a little.

Photo by *Zara

16 thoughts on “Forgiving Yourself”

  1. Hi Deborah,

    Forgiving ourselves can be one of the hardest things to do in life. Your own personal story and that of Mr Tanaka illustrates this point perfectly. It is easy to shoulder all the blame and to beat ourselves up over our mistakes. But in truth, any problem that arises involves 2 parties. While I am not suggesting that we shirk all responsibility, we should view the situation objectively and realize that each party has to bear part of the blame. A lack of understanding on either side can easily lead to a stalemate and a breakdown in communication. This could lead to years of bad blood and misunderstandings which serves little purpose.

    Everything happens for a reason in any situation. So the best thing to do if we have trouble forgiving ourselves is to try to perceive the lesson that we need to learn from the situation. The lesson may be harsh because of the great inertia it has to overcome before we can make a positive change. In any case, we should learn the lesson and let go of the incident once and for all. Holding on to it after we have tried ways and means to make amends serves no purpose and is a waste of energy. Besides, we have already paid the price for the lesson with our suffering. There is no need to suffer endlessly.

    Thank you for sharing this article! :)

    Irving the Vizier

  2. @The Vizier: Seems like you’ve been through a path or two of guilt and forgiveness yourself. I think you made a point that my original article left out. Forgiving yourself isn’t about just “letting go.” There’s a process of learning from your mistakes and trying to make amends that helps with healing. But I do hope people don’t hold on relentlessly just to punish themselves. That serves no purpose.

  3. Is that story real? I mean it was really a sad one. The last para where it’s written about the girl divorcing her hubby was a shocking and confusing thing . The reason for my confusion is if the girl had already talked and discussed the marital problems which Mr.Tanaka had , why did she repeated them in her marriage? Didn’t she learned anything from the pains and regression of Mr Tanaka? What made her do the same mistakes (or different ones) like Mr Tanaka did?
    One thing I would like to share with you guys is always learn to be patient. It will save may years of pains and sorrow and regression off course.
    Coming to forgiving oneself I agree with you, it’s really hard to forget the sins or mistakes done intentionally by oneself. Only way to get away from the guilt is to do something good for others even if that risks your happiness , help the needy may be there prayers relief you from the guilt and you are able to forgive yourself.That’s my way.
    How Well Do You Know Yourself?
    This test aims at discovering how well you know yourself.

    1. @Kate: The story is completely true, including my own divorce. I went to Japan with my then-fiance, and all of my friends there met him as “my future husband.” We married in 2006 once I returned Stateside, but divorced 2 years later. My marital problems were much different than Mr. Tanaka’s, who had been married for 18 years before his own divorce. But perhaps I didn’t learn from his mistakes, but had to make some of my own. I’ve been known to be stubborn like that. :)

  4. It’s hard to forgive oneself. I’ve wronged and acted a fool to many people. When a hurtfull memory pops up in my head, I immediately become ashamed and block it out. I realize what you’re saying and it’s about that time that I confront my personal demons. Thank you for sharing your story. I’ve learned a valuable thing tonight and will apply it to my life from here on out.

    1. I don’t think it’s a particularly easy thing to do: forgiving oneself. It may take time and it doesn’t hurt to have the comfort of someone who understands your situation. Know that no matter what happened in the past, you have control over making better choices in the future. Be good to that future version of yourself.

      1. One thing that has helped me to forgive myself is something I heard years ago and I couldn’t even tell you who said it but it stuck with me. “you do better when you know better” once you make a mistake or two and you learn the lesson you know better. So forgive yourself because you may not have known better :)

  5. I struggle with forgiving myself a lot. I never realized until I started exploring my thoughts and mind in meditation and journaling, but I actually suffer from a lot of self-hatred because I haven’t forgiven myself for my mistakes and shortcomings throughout my life.

    What’s more, the largest reason why I am unable to forgive other people for hurting me, betraying me and leaving me in my life is because I can’t forgive myself. What they did wrong I can understand and forgive so easily. But the way they remind me of what *I* did wrong and the mistakes I made both in the relationship and in trusting them not to hurt me like that makes me hate them. I can’t forgive them for reminding me of my own faults.

    And that’s so very sad.

    I’ve been working on this problem a lot lately. Forgiving myself for all I’ve done wrong and all the things I’m going to do wrong. It’s hard work, and this article is a reminder of how important it is to keep working at it. Thank you.

    1. Forgiving yourself is often much harder than forgiving others. It can be hard work and long journey, but worth it. It helps to have people around you to talk to about your problems and they can point out when you’re being overly critical. The journaling and meditation can also help immensely.

      Good luck with your own journey.

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