Why You Should Forgive Yourself More Often

Saturday, October 3, 2015

It's a commonly accepted principle of life that we are each our own worst critics.  That we have a knack for remembering and dwelling on our own mistakes far more than we take notice of others', and that we may even sometimes find it easier to forgive others than to forgive ourselves.  Our guilt and shame cripples us long after everyone else has forgotten our wrongs or forgiven us for them.  We often find ourselves turning less-than-ideal situations over and over in our brains, thinking about what we could have done differently, and wishing we had, the assurance that we'll do better at some abstract future moment providing thin comfort.

If you can identify with any or all of those statements, I have something to tell you that might help you see things differently, or at least inspire you to finally go a little easier on yourself.

I subscribe to the daily newsletter from Happify.com because it ensures I start each day with a little dose of joy.  Yesterday morning, the lead story was this video about why the question "Who am I?" is so difficult to answer.  Turns out it's because of this fancy philosophical principle called the "persistence of identity."

...Wait.  What?

The persistence of identity.  Basically, it's the idea that we, as people, are constantly changing, and our identities are composed of so many different aspects of ourselves -- past, present, future; thoughts, feelings, actions, bodies -- that identifying who we are is much more difficult that pointing to an oak tree and calling it such, for example.  We are not definite.  We are not objective.  We are the result of so many different lived experiences, all woven into the fabric of our identities, which persist in spite of all of these changes because, underneath it all, we're still fundamentally the same people.

Or are we?

The video tells how the Greek historian Plutarch used a ship to explain this phenomenon.  When Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, sailed home after his victory against the Minotaur at Crete, the Athenians preserved his ship in the harbor for a thousand years to honor his success, replacing each piece as it decayed with a new, identical piece.  By the time those thousand years had passed, no part of Theseus' original ship remained... so was it the same one he sailed all those years ago?

In a similar way, we humans are constantly changing.  This  New York Times article explains that on a physical level, our bodies are in a constant state of renewal, and that the oldest parts of us are still only about 10 years old.  We are like billions of little Theseus ships, repaired and replaced over time to keep ourselves in tiptop shape.  Which means that, life lessons aside, on a purely biological level, we are not the same people that we were years ago, or yesterday, or even seconds ago.  Because of this, it's unfair and mean for us to berate our past selves for mistakes we made at earlier times.  If we had known better then, we would have chosen differently.  And we have to trust that now that we do know better, we really are different, with no parts of our then selves (like Theseus' original ship), the people who didn't know enough to make a different decision, remaining.

We haven't assumed a different identity, of course; our memories and relationships and other enduring aspects ensure we're still our old selves.  But we're new, too.  Every day.  Always.  So don't hang on too hard to the past.  Let it create you anew today, and then let it go.


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