Fifteen years ago a 16 year old boy was approached by an acquaintance at school (We’ll call him John). The 16 year old had a reputation in his high school as the kid to go to if you wanted to try a new drug. John sought out the 16 year old and asked if they could hang out after school. When the time came, John worked up his courage to ask, “Do you think I could try heroin with you?”
The 16 year old liked John. He told him, “No. Some people can’t just use it once. You could become an instant drug addict.”
John replied, “Look man, I’m going to try heroin. Would you rather it be with you where at least you know the drug is good? Or would you rather I get it from someone else?”
The 16 year old sighed and took out a syringe. Together they got high. John fell completely in love with the euphoria and never got off the drug. By 22, John was dead.
The 16 year old is now 31. He cannot forgive himself for what happened. When he talks about it he glazes over. His eyes fill with tears. He consistently suffers with two questions. Firstly, ‘What if I had stuck with my no answer? Maybe he wouldn’t have made the effort to get it somewhere else.’ Secondly, ‘Why did he die and not me? He was a good kid who wanted to live. I was a horrible drug dealer who didn’t care if I lived.’
How do you forgive yourself for the sin you’ve committed that you feel is unforgiveable? How do you come back from a deeply entrenched belief that your bad choice led to so much suffering?
This question has plagued the human race for millennia. While there are differing answers to this question, two stand-out as most helpful. The first is related to repentance and the second is related to self-compassion.
Repentance is a religious concept but is easily applied to a non-religious context. If a person commits a sin against God, they admit it and turn from it. It’s not enough to say, “I was wrong and I’m sorry.” There has to be an actual effort made at changing circumstances so it is not repeated. To go a step father, true repentance often includes helping others out of the same sinful trap. The Christian God requires repentance from sin. This is likely true in many other religious faiths as well. Even a secular humanist will agree that owning responsibility for bad behavior and actively turning away from it aids in self-forgiveness.
Self-compassion is the second part to forgiving the self. For psychological purposes it comes from a Dialectical Behavioral treatment model. Self-compassion requires a person to gather understanding for the many things that led to a bad choice. In the case of the 16 year old, he had been using drugs to numb PTSD caused by severe child abuse. The drugs led him to unclear decision-making. John also made many choices leading him to seek out heroin. Experiences in John’s life contributed to his belief he could “handle” trying heroin. In any case, there is understanding available for the drug dealer even though his choice to provide heroin was the first exposure to the drug which caused John’s ghastly and tragic death.
One must be careful not to use self-compassion to make excuses for wrong behavior. People these days love to find ways they are victims of their surroundings. Social media inundates its users with messages that bad things happen to a person just because of skin color, because “rich people are greedy,” because “all politicians are liars and selfish,” etc. In actual fact, the good and bad things in life are a blend of outside factors (race, socioeconomic status, who is in political office, etc.) and personal responsibility for choices. So how does a person practice self-compassion without falling into the trap of victimhood? Give understanding and grace for the factors contributing to past choices while committing to being better at the next opportunity.
The combination of repentance and self-compassion allows for self-forgiveness. These two things must work together for a person to become “unstuck.” They are the perfect blend of personal remorse, personal responsibility, and grace. They provide a path forward and a way to learn from egregious mistakes. Help your teenager by forgiving yourself for things you regret. Let your teen see you find a way forward that shows personal responsibility and kindness so your teenager will know how he/she can do the same.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT