On a recent walk in the (long overdue) spring weather, a friend impatiently reproached himself for failing to live up to his New Year’s resolution to get more fit. “I don’t know why I bothered making one,” he concluded. “I’ll just make it all over again next January and break it before spring.” Although I sympathized with his self-reproach, I urged him to keep remaking the resolutions, whether the same or different.
“Because we’re never done,” I explained eagerly.
This did not seem very motivating to him. “Great,” he ground out.
I’ve got an exercise machine that hasn’t been used in a few months, myself. But I’m not getting rid of it, or giving up on my New Year’s ambitions. I think we’ve heard the wrong messages about resolutions, and it explains why exercise equipment stores see a lot of returns in the spring. Resolutions to exercise are not on-off switches, and neither are our identities. Our bodies change, and our day-to-day lives change. Of course we have to commit, and then re-commit, and then do it again. No one exercises just once and wakes up for the rest of life with a hard body. Everybody who does it has to renew their commitment on occasion. It may be easier for some. But for the rest of us, I want to urge more self-forgiveness.
My research focuses on forgiveness, and most of my work concerns the things we beat ourselves up about. We’re only capable of resolutions because we’re capable of memory, and unfortunately, memory is also what makes us good at focusing on our failures. Self-reproach is a function of memory, and self-inflicted harms – like sacrifice of our plans and hopes, and taking on unworthy images of ourselves – linger and reinforce negative beliefs we already have about ourselves.
The funny thing is, I don’t hear much about self-forgiveness in fitness circles. People vary, individuals differ in what motivates them, and it is entirely possible that people prone to stick to exercise resolutions are also people who find a little self-reproach motivating. “I didn’t meet my personal best yesterday,” a very fit friend informed me. “I’m going to push myself harder! My legs are not giving out – my head is giving up! It’s all about will-power! Rraahhhr!” Okay, maybe she didn’t say rraahhhr. But she said the other stuff, about how much she punches herself into more effort. Good for her. But I notice that most of us are not diligent about fitness the way she is, and most of us are really much more likely to feel discouraged by self-reproach. I do not recommend flagellation for most of us. I recommend self-forgiveness for fitness, and there’s a trick to it. If you suspect that self-reproach does not make you want to jog, read on.
We’re often kinder to others we’ve let down than we are to ourselves. The evidence suggests that others are much more likely to forgive us if we apologize and make some effort at “forward-looking” restitution, a combination of acceptance and a plan. Note that this is not accomplished by feeling bad, or telling the other you feel bad. In fact, feeling bad can be completely absent from saying you acknowledge you messed up (acceptance) and offering restitution.
Look at the contrast with this and the way we think about self-reproach for falling off our New Year’s Resolutions to exercise! That crummy baggage is all about feeling bad at the sight of the treadmill. So here’s the trick: Apologize and offer restitution to yourself. It’s way better than feeling bad. Feeling bad looks backward, but we don’t move backward through time. We only move forward. Put on some walking shoes and offer yourself an apology: you let yourself down but you have a plan to make the future different. That’s self-forgiveness. Do that again tomorrow. Do it again the next day.
I love New Year’s Resolutions. I have come to think of them as the thing which marks another year on the earth in which I get to recommit to myself over and over. And we know too that it’s almost never the case that it’s too late, that one can usually regain some muscle or some health.
My advisor in graduate school, Claudia Card, referred to self-forgiveness as an achievement. But achievement connotes something you’re finished with and got a medal for. Because of the way memory uncontrollably recurs, and self-reproach hangs out until you tell it to settle into the back seat, I prefer to describe self-forgiveness as an ongoing commitment, like the commitments involved in long-term relationships. The thing is, we’re often a lot more disposed to recommit to our long-term relationships with others, but when it comes to our long-term relationships with ourselves, we are actually more likely to dredge up every failure and beat ourselves over the head with it. Most of us would never treat others the way we treat ourselves about bailing on a resolution to exercise more. So I’m telling everyone that I see self-forgiveness as a continual re-commitment to the ultimate long-term relationship, that is, the set of relationships between one’s past, current, and future selves.
Most philosophers of forgiveness conclude that forgiveness is not the end of the story, accomplishing, instead, a change in how the story might continue. For some of us, regret may be inevitable, but self- forgiveness is an act of hope that affirms the possibility that we will continue even in the presence of regret. It is difficult to recommend that we look forward in the full knowledge that the future contains more bad news, more failures, yet acceptance of oneself includes acceptance of one’s uncontrollable parts. The commitment to persist includes the commitment to continue the work of self-forgiveness despite oneself.
Self-forgiveness is optimistic, hoping and trusting that one’s future selves will continue the commitment to be kind. I made a New Year’s Resolution. I didn’t “keep it,” but it wasn’t an object to keep. It’s a relationship. It’s my relationship with myself. And I’m in this for the long haul.