Forgiving Yourself

I’ve always been an analytical and self-critical person, and I look at my past behavior and try to find improvements. It’s probably an offshoot of being a programmer: endlessly looking for ways to make code more concise, readable, or faster: in search of the next optimization. When you are programming, this optimization is as easy or as hard as debugging: finding faults in your approach, and more often than not, fixing them. You also have tools available that help you avoid similar mistakes in the future, rigorous testing for example.

In real life, this is messier. The first obstacle of course is achieving a bird’s eye view of the situation. The third-party perspective—that which comes most naturally to a programmer—is much harder to achieve in real life. In fact, even when programming, mental tools such as rubber-duck debugging help. Therapy helps to bridge this gap: talking about what’s troubling you and being asked pointed questions about it, seeking the help of a specialist who can apply CBT for example can often lead you to surprising answers. It’s important to note that therapy (just like rubber-duck debugging) is just a tool: at the end of the day, it’s up to you to process the results of your self-examination, and come out of a cocoon.

One difficult counter-note to looking back at your mistakes is guilt. “Why did I do that silly thing?” “Would have been so much better if I said this.” & the classic: “Maybe next time I should not get so pissed off.” For a long time, I was really good at processing guilt: either shrugging it off as life’s many foibles or thinking of mistakes as an adventure to learn. But when mistakes piled up to a pattern of behaviour, and a few of them led me down some painful turns in life, I was quite out of my depth on how to deal with guilt.

After quite some sessions of soul searching, one of the most effective ways I’ve found to process guilt, move on, and be positive is this: to forgive yourself. It’s also one of those concepts that’s very experiential: it’s easy to say these words, read them, intellectually understand what they mean without really grokking its essence. I realised this when I tried to explain this to a few friends, and couldn’t find the right words to describe the process. So here goes a more preapred version.

Forgiveness is a Work in Progress

Forgiveness is not a magic wand that you wave around to get instant results. Everything I talk about here I’m in the process of examining every week. Some events I deal with better than the rest. It’s important to get into this mindset first: small baby steps to a better you every week. Learning to relive the moment objectively (& eventually to live in the moment objectively) is an ongoing practice. Eventually you ackowledge those things that were not under your control, situations there were, and where you could improve, and learn to understand the difference.

Forgiveness is Unconditional

Probably the hardest lesson for me to learn was that forgiving yourself has to be unconditional. It’s not: “I promise never to do this again” (because you will), or “I had <x> mitigating conditions, I probably would never have done this if that had not been the case”. Either way, you are probably wrong: it will happen again, and probably you’ll do worse. Your forgiveness should be rooted in a mind free from conditions and if clauses: it’s acknowledging that a mistake happened, you have thought upon it, and there is repentance, that’s all there is to it.

Forgiveness is a Pledge to Keep Trying

How many times have you fallen off the wagon? How many times will you decide to go the gym and then change plans? How many times have you had a drink too many? Or become too impatient with friends and family? I think the human condition is that we’ll always keep making mistakes. What’s important is to forgive, and keep trying to be better. It’s easy to mistake this for giving up altogether, in fact it’s the opposite: no matter how many times you forget the gym, or go back to an indisciplined life, you know you will one day be better because you’ll try again.

Forgiveness is Gratitude

Part of forgiving yourself is also learning to acknowledge the duality in every situation. Even the worst incidents have joy. The act of finding nuggets of things you can be grateful for is very empowering. While forgiveness can find you a new path to move forward, gratitude leads the way. Maintaing a gratitude journal is a very powerful tool if you are currently struggling.


Well, that’s it. I realise this post is probably a bit more sappy than you expected from me, but it’s part of a growing realisation that topics surrounding mental health have very little exposure in the engineering world. We’re far too analytical and right brained, and our left brain selves are left starving. And to compound to this, Indians still have a stigma in talking about mental health.

This post is mostly due to conversations over the weekend that I had with Prema and Sanjay, two dear friends and probably the liveliest couple I know. If you are in trouble and need help, ping Prema, she has my personal recommendation.

Here’s a video from our weekend together:

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