By Esther Mann

 

Dear Esther,

Several weeks ago, a woman wrote in to you asking how she can go about forgiving her husband for his behaviors that felt like betrayals. I liked your answer and hope that it was helpful to the woman who was struggling with her feelings.

My question is along those lines, but different: How does one forgive himself for his behaviors that were just so awful? Honestly, I’m not proud of many things that I have done during my lifetime. I don’t know why I was so careless with other people’s feelings and so self-involved that I just did whatever I wanted to do, without thinking of the consequences.

My father was one of the earliest cases of COVID. He wasn’t all that old and was generally in pretty good shape. Looking back, I don’t think anyone knew what they were doing back then or how to handle it. I can’t help thinking that if he had gotten it now, he would still be alive. But back then, before anyone knew what was happening, he was in the hospital and placed on a ventilator. None of us — not my mother or my siblings — were able to visit him. I began thinking about him being all alone and frightened, and it was like someone threw a bucket of ice water in my face, waking me up from the semi-comatose way I was living my life. As I wrestled with all the things I wanted to say to him, all the apologies I felt I owed him, I started looking at myself and my life differently. It was a real wakeup call for me.

I’ll never have a chance to apologize to my father for all the pain I caused him. There is so much I want to say that will never be said. I have been trying to be a better son to my mother. She is grieving badly, and I call her daily, visit often, and try to be kind and sensitive to all her needs. I’m also working harder on my relationships with my siblings and trying to get closer to them.

Most important are my efforts toward my wonderful wife, who has put up with so much from me over the years, never complaining, just looking the other way. She hardly recognizes me these days and I’m so happy I can be the husband she deserved all along.

But the problem is that I can’t seem to forgive myself. I lie awake in bed at night, thinking about all the terrible things I’ve done and feeling so awful, I just don’t know what to do with myself. I wish I could have a do-over and live my life over again, very differently. It’s hard for me to look myself in the mirror, knowing everything I’ve done that I’m so ashamed of and all the people I’ve hurt.

How does one go about forgiving himself? Is it possible for me to free myself of these painful memories that often torture me? I want to move forward with my life in every way, with confidence and happiness. Is that even possible?

Tortured

Dear Tortured,

First off, my sincerest condolences on the loss of your father. I’m so sorry that he and all of you went through such a horrendous ordeal. May the rest of you find comfort from one another.

Years ago, there was a famous singer by the name of Frank Sinatra. He had many hit songs that helped him become quite famous in his day. One well-known song of his, called “My Way,” began with the following words: “Regrets, I have a few, but then again, too few to mention…”

I’ll never forget my reaction to those words. Though I was youngish at the time, I already had several regrets that toyed with my thoughts when my defenses were down. Nothing necessarily colossal, but I certainly wished that I had handled some situations differently — better. And I wondered how it was possible that a grown man (he was actually 54 years old at the time that he sang that song) could look back on his life with “too few regrets to mention.” Either, I thought, he had lived an impeccable life that he was totally proud of, or it was just a song that I shouldn’t take too literally.

The point is that I have yet to personally meet anyone who can honestly say that they regret absolutely nothing about the lives they have lived thus far. Mind you, not all regrets are equal. Some of us regret things that thankfully have minor consequences, and then there are those of us who really feel that they blew it in very extreme and toxic ways and, like you, wish for a do-over. Obviously, we don’t get do-overs. But every day is a new beginning. A fresh start. An opportunity to begin all over from this juncture forward. And that is where your focus has to lie — after you have made amends.

It’s great that you are treating your mother respectfully and beautifully, that you are working on your relationships with your siblings, and, of supreme importance, that you are caring for your wife in the way that she should have been cared for all along. But have you literally made your apologies? Have you acknowledged your wrongdoings from the bottom of your heart and told each and every one of them how sorry you are for your former behavior and how you intend to make it up to them going forward? This is an important conversation that you need to have with everyone you feel you treated badly. They all deserve to hear your sincere apologies. And just as important, the process of owning your misdeeds will also serve you in a cathartic capacity.

Not knowing where you fall on the spiritual continuum, I nevertheless feel it is important to make note of the power of making amends on that level as well. Thankfully, there are many columns that delve deeply into that arena. This column is not one of them.

Having said that, if you recall the answer I gave to the woman who wrote in to me some time ago, I told her that forgiving is one thing. Forgetting is something else entirely. It sounds as though you want to go forward with a clean slate, erasing all memories of your former behavior. I’m not so sure that is possible or even helpful. We need to remember in order to stay sharp and focused and to remain on the path of goodness. And though each day must be viewed as offering us potential for a new beginning, it is incumbent upon us to remember our personal journey that got us to our present point. Not in a brutal, self-flagellating way, but in an honest, inspiring, self-directed way.

So as you try to clean up all of your relationships and show by your actions that you are a different person from the one who was capable of previous improper behavior, you must also work on perhaps your most important relationship — the one you have with yourself. Find compassion for your present self with forgiveness and love. You can have regrets, plenty of them — we all do. And you must never forget the pain you’ve caused others. But from this day forward, every day must be viewed as a new beginning, a new opportunity to get it right and to live with dignity toward others and yourself. It’s never too late to live your best life!

Esther

Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals, couples, and families. Esther is presently offering phone, Zoom, and FaceTime sessions. She can be reached at mindbiz44@aol.com or 516-314-2295.

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