March 25, 2011 5:16 AM   Subscribe

What suggestions can you give me for help in forgiving myself?

Some years ago I had a problem with compulsively taking things. It was particularly bad during a long period of time when I was taking a cocktail of antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, mood stabilizers. I would get urges I couldn't control. Example: taking books or clothing from friends, abandoned flower pots from a porch, plants from a park, etc. I feel like an awful person, particularly in the case of taking friends' possessions. Is it necessary for me to admit to these wrongdoings -- thefts -- in order to move on and forgive myself? The idea of people knowing I stole terrifies me. I have read a lot about self-forgiveness but it isn't helping. Suggestions greatly appreciated.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe what you're looking for isn't self-forgiveness but their forgiveness. Which you can only get by asking for it.
posted by valkyryn at 5:23 AM on March 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you have taken books or clothing from friends, you should return them. You might admit that you took them because you were in an abnormal state of mind as a result of medication you were taking, but if that is too embarrassing, you could also say you took it by accident. Life is full of accidents (and any specific person doesn't necessarily have to know how many such accidents you have had).

As for things that you can't return, such as plants from a park, bear in mind that although the plants were not there to be taken, still, it's your park too. I think you can forgive yourself for that.
posted by grizzled at 5:35 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Dear Sugar just had a column about forgiving oneself. You might find it helpful.
posted by perkinite at 5:40 AM on March 25, 2011

The idea of people knowing I stole terrifies me.

Lots of things that ultimately feel good are terrifying in the imagination.

I think you should admit the thefts, and also do whatever you can to put things right; return, replace or otherwise compensate for the stuff you took. It won't be comfortable, but it will free you from your current guilty stuckness because you'll become the person who did the right thing even though it was scary, instead of being the person who concealed the truth for their own comfort.
posted by jon1270 at 5:45 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Maybe you don't have to flagellate yourself while taking actions to amend the thefts. "Hey friend, I have this book of yours. I'm sorry I've had it for so long, I don't know what I was thinking." If there are items precious enough to those people that an explanation is really necessary, then do go into details about your medication and compulsion. But generally, the harm is that their items are missing; the remedy is that the items are returned.

As for plants and things from parks....well, maybe you could volunteer for an adopt-a-landscape or whatever and use your effort to amend.

What helped me forgive myself was to sit and think about my story as if a friend were telling me. Would I hate and castigate my friend? No way! I wouldn't even have been as harsh on a stranger. Treat yourself like a best friend who deserves a little understanding and love. And follow whatever advice you might give that friend for making amends.
posted by motsque at 5:58 AM on March 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

I think it gets dangerous when you start getting into justifying the actions (which you haven't done but some advice could lead you in that direction..) What you need is true forgiveness so that you can move on and stop holding onto these past mistakes. This is why every master that's walked this planet has preached about the necessity of forgiveness, because without it we'll continually build up baggage for other people, places, and ourselves which prevents us from living in the current moment.

I've learned that in order to forgive myself for something, it helps greatly if I ask whoever I've wronged for forgiveness first. Once you know that that person still loves you, it becomes much easier to let go of your action and move on. To me, "sucking it up" would mean finding the courage to talk to your friends. It will take more courage, but the payoff for you, and likely for your relationship with them, will be many times greater than keeping it a secret.

As far as the park thefts go, take a day and help a stranger, you'll feel better :)
posted by Glendale at 6:00 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't think you can forgive yourself without restitution. Try to make a deliberate effort to return the items taken, even if you do it anonymously. Send a donation to the Parks and Recreation office, buy plants and leave them on the various porches, return the books you have taken by mail. When it comes to clothing, buy a new item and gift it, saying "I saw this and I thought of you. Buying was an impulsive action, please don't feel obliged to reciprocate."

In an ideal world we all would have enough self-confidence to be able to openly confess our wrongs to our friends. Just remember that none of us is perfect.
posted by francesca too at 6:25 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's possible your friends already know you stole from them.

With that in mind, I think you should return everything you stole with a full confession. Although this seems like the most embarrassing approach, in reality it's probably the least embarrassing.
posted by tel3path at 6:26 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Not a big fan of 'creating wounds to then forgive'. If these people don't know that you've stolen from them, telling them and then asking for forgiveness... well, I've seen it NOT work more often than otherwise.

If you wish to set the balance right without causing them pain, have you considered giving them an unsolicited gift (possibly anonymously) equal to the object that you stole from them?

If you stole a flowerpot from someone, give them a potted plant.
posted by unixrat at 6:28 AM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just feel like a lot of the responses are leading you towards avoiding potential pain and suffering in your relationships with your friends. The root of your question is that you cannot forgive yourself, that you "feel like an awful person" because of your actions. So you need to know that you've done your absolute best to make up for these things. Ask yourself what your best is... Is it buying an item for your friend of equal value? Is it anonymously returning the item? If you're truly honest with yourself, I think you'll find that the answers to these questions are 'no'.

The real problem here that you're having, in your own head, is not the monetary value of these books or whatever the items were, it's that you feel like you betrayed your friends in some way and you can't let go of that -- can't forgive yourself for it. Rather than avoiding this in any way, look it straight in the face and deal with it. Your friends are going to be there for you, if they are true friends. If they're decent people, they will respect you for being honest and courageous and should recognize how much you love them, because most people would say to themselves "ahh it's just a book, they won't miss it...". Hopefully your friends have the compassion to hear your story clearly, forgive you and move on, strengthening your relationship with them! It might not happen right away, they could be angry for a bit, but by bringing this to the table, you're also helping your friends to grow, by providing them with the opportunity to grow through forgiving you. So this is a great thing for everyone, but it all starts with you finding the courage to begin the conversation...

Be brave, you can do this!
posted by Glendale at 6:43 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think motsque's approach is a good one. If I had a friend who was in a pretty bad headspace at one point and did some ethically bad things as a result, I would (a) of course forgive them if they came forward about it; and (b) really be more focused on sharing the happiness of their not being in that same place anymore--I wouldn't see them as an awful person, but rather a strong and courageous one!
posted by drlith at 6:43 AM on March 25, 2011

When I was a drinker, I took things that didn't belong to me for no good reason. Was it the rush? The idea I deserved something - anything! - nice? Was it to be mean? I stole from people I loved, people I hated, stores... if it wasn't nailed down it was at risk once I was in a mood for it. Lord knows my reasoning.

But that's not the point.

I'm willing to bet £50 that my confession to you made you feel a tiny bit better. I'd lay down a further £50 that if you spoke to most people about this (maybe not the people you stole from just yet), they could tell you a time they did something impulsive and wrong. Little by little, the shame would recede and your head would clear, letting you know the appropriate way to make amends.

I reckon it's your shame and secrecy around this that's burdening you. But you are not alone or bad or a even the worst friend in the world for this.
posted by katiecat at 7:13 AM on March 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

I am torn about telling your friends you stole from them. I can see some good coming from it, but also a lot could get muddied. I would try an intermediate step first and if that does not make you feel better go to Defcon 5. I can only speak for myself, so if it were me, my next step would be making a donation to charity either straight up donation to a local cause or donate in honor of your friends from whom you stole. I think it would accomplish a little bit of a feeling of catharsis, small restitution (albeit not directly to your friends, but similar to what a court would do with community service), and serve as a public acknowledgement that you had done wrong and are now on the straight and narrow path.

Good luck whatever you decide.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:44 AM on March 25, 2011

1. self-imposed community service. The parks here in Northern ca are desperate for volunteers. They need weeding, gardening etc. Because their budgets haven slashed. So see if you can volunteer at the park where you took the plants or at another park. If you garden weed etc for many a number of hours you will actually a net positive to the park even if you subtract out the plants you took. You can even think of the work you do as payment for the plants. With your friends you could buy them random gifts to sort of replace what you took or you could pay it forward by volunteering at food pantry etc. I kind of like the food pantry idea. If you go out and do something good for someone else you can feel good about your generosity.

2. Statute of limitations. Everything except murder has a sol. Sometimes when I'm beating myself up about a mistake I made years ago, I just think" statute has run on that" and somehow I'm able to let it go.
posted by bananafish at 8:34 AM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Assess each act of theft. In some cases, it might freak out a friend, or they might be very judgmental. Think long and hard, and consider talking to each friend. At the very least, make friends aware that you went through a very difficult period, and had a lot or trouble getting the meds balanced.

I'm with bananafish on the Statute of Limitations, and it goes both ways. Forgive yourself for your own errors, and forgive others for theirs.

Perform targeted restitution, either by volunteering or making donations. If you took Chris's favorite teeshirt, and Chris feels strongly about animal welfare, give a day to the local shelter. Tell them you'll do whatever they need, not just fun tasks like walking dogs.

Decide on a good act that you will perform, for the rest of your life, to make the world a little better. I recommend picking up litter as a Generally Good thing to do. It's kind iof a zen act of humility and service.
posted by theora55 at 9:05 AM on March 25, 2011

I would suggest that you read this book and pay particular attention to the sections about confessing a guilty secret.

This will help you make decisions about who and how to tell.

Of course your question was how to forgive yourself, not how to ask others to forgive you. I don't think this will be achieved by dealing with it indirectly, unless you've thought carefully first about the rights and wrongs of making a direct confession in each case. On reflection you might decide that in some cases you'd be doing more harm than good if you told, in which case it would be self-indulgent to tell. But you need to be satisfied that not telling is the right thing to do, rather than just a cop-out.
posted by tel3path at 9:34 AM on March 25, 2011

Restitution really does make you feel better.

You need to search your feelings to see if the only way you will feel better is telling your friends what you did. If so, I would hope they would, being friends, be understanding. Often, we are far more critical of ourselves than others are. And if you explain where your life was then and how you are trying to make amends and move on, they should be supportive. That's what friends DO.

But if you feel you just can't face your friends, yet really want to make things right, perhaps unixrat's solution will help you move forward. Giving an unsolicited gift will make your friends happy, and could help you soothe your tortured soul.

I do want to say: sometimes the hardest path is the best path to take, for your own sake. Again, we are our own harshest critics.
posted by misha at 10:28 AM on March 25, 2011

The only thing that really works long term for you is to own up to your mistakes to the people you harmed and make restitution to them. Some will forgive you, some will not. It doesn't matter because it isn't about them, it is about you unburdening your soul. Yes, this is beyond difficult, but it works.
posted by caddis at 10:33 AM on March 25, 2011

"It doesn't matter because it isn't about them, it is about you unburdening your soul."

That's actually one of the dangers of this. If I suspected a friend of stealing, say, a book from me, that would do some pretty serious damage to my trust in them. It would be a mindfuck that could possibly hurt me an awful lot. It certainly wouldn't be about the book, and it would also not be entirely about the thief unburdening their soul, much as I would like to support them in doing that.

I had something happen recently where someone broke trust with me in a way that, on the face of it seems laughable, and they probably think I didn't notice and to all official appearances they were just being forgetful about something. Under the surface, though, it was a very serious betrayal. And yet I can't say anything about it without revealing my feelings, which was most likely the goal of the betrayal in the first place, and I don't know why it was the goal - possibly to put me in disgrace or feed off my emotions. So much as I would love it if this person were to confess and unburden their soul to me, I wouldn't feel so great if they made the confession all about them. It being all about them is the cause of the whole problem in the first place.

Forgiveness is a two-way process, despite what pop-psych would have us believe.
posted by tel3path at 12:18 PM on March 25, 2011

Before forgiveness, comes repentance. Repentance involves acknowledging that you made mistakes, doing what you can to set them right and a commitment to doing what you to avoid repeating the mistakes in the future.

If you want to be an honest person who lives with integrity in the world, then taking honest responsibility (despite possible embarrassment) is important for YOUR processes. How can you respect yourself if you know that you took short-cuts? On the other hand, there are times when making amends can cause more harm than good. In that situation, indirect amends, such as community service is appropriate.

To keep you honest in this decision, I strongly recommend that you find a trusty-worth and morally upright friend can help you to figure out the right thing to do in each case. In a 12-step program this person would be your sponsor but you can create this relationship yourself - it will also give you someone who can help you with encouragement, support and perspective on the whole process.

Once you do this, regardless of how others respond, you will know that you have truly done the best you could to set things right. Having completed the process of repentance, you will be able to forgive younger self for making mistakes and feel freer to move forward with your life. But you have to do step 1 before step 2 will truly work.
posted by metahawk at 12:20 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

In Judaism, where we have a whole holiday season focused on repentance and reconcilliation, there are two teachings which might be helpful.
1. God will not forgive you for a sin against another person unless you have asked for forgiveness and tried to make amends with the person who was harmed.
2. If you sincerely try three times, and the other person refuses to accept your apology, then you have satisfied #1.

In response to tel3path, I would agree that it is not about indiscriminate unburdening your soul - it is about acting with integrity in the world. At the same time, if you are honestly trying to do right by the other person, then that honest effort counts, even if the other person refuses to respond the way that you might wish. I apologize and make amends because it is the right thing to do. That is part under my countrol - it is about me whether I choose to do the right thing or not. Having done the best I can, You can accept or reject my apology - that is your choice and the validity of my repentance does not depend on whether are in place to respond with forgiveness or anger.
posted by metahawk at 12:36 PM on March 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Is there anyone you can strategize with about this? I think apologizing should be done on a case-by-case basis, with you first running it by someone so they can tell you if they see any harm to the other person coming from it.

12-step meetings are full of people who have had to make amends for their method of making an earlier amends.
posted by small_ruminant at 4:24 PM on March 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

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