On the eve of Thanksgiving, I crouched on the tiles of the Broadway-Lafayette subway station at home in New York, paging through prints by a street artist. His pen had swerved across the paper of each print into untraceable, chaotic lines that organized themselves into figures of afflicted creatures. And one of them — a contorted angel hovering in a vision of pink — bore the words that made it mine from the pile: “I forgive myself.”
The print reached my hands like a punctuation mark after a semester of practicing those words.
I was on the path of forgiving myself for maintaining relationships that had eroded my self-esteem. By then, I had written thousands of words across multiple pages in my notes app. I fluctuated between elaborately titled playlists and Ice Spice. I started walking to the Boston Public Library every day to clear my head. I had become someone who liked spontaneously writing lists.
Each of these habits revealed to me who I am. What’s more, they showed that forgiveness is contentment with every part of myself, especially those that I once wished did not exist.
At some point, I realized that I just took the usual advice — to write out my feelings, to listen to affirming music, to move my body — and struck the path of total honesty with myself every day. And, by the night I arrived at the station, I felt more present, unpredictably joyful, and intuitive than I had since my high school graduation.
And yet I bought the print anyway as a reminder to myself, because wherever forgiveness lies, I did not know whether I had arrived permanently. I was a visitor crossing a border with no checkpoint. How would I know how much I needed to forgive myself to actually feel forgiven?
I turned to my only constant source of advice on the subject: the legions of seemingly confident, grounded women who comprised my Instagram Reels algorithm (I deleted TikTok in a separate process of self-forgiveness, or rather, self-restraint, for the countless hours I spent on there). These women preach peace with our inability to change the past and announce a new era of womanhood, one in which I would stand alone and unwavering before the obstacles in my path.
To them, forgiveness is a metamorphosis, sometimes as much about an external transformation as an internal one. It would be too easy to characterize their process as egotistical, too simple to call these women’s goals vain. In truth, they understand that the body and mind are symbiotic. Their thoughts on self-forgiveness, kindness, and affirmation have unfolded and manifested into a radically changed relationship with themselves. Who wouldn’t want to share that with others?
The theory of self-forgiveness touted by these Instagram Reels women triggered my instincts for the most fundamental acts of self-care — I dressed up for class, bought concealer, and painted my nails. I spent time getting to know myself better, impulse by impulse.
But before the Instagram algorithm identified my problem with myself, my understanding came from the crusader against impulse: the Catholic Church.
In the Catholic Church, forgiveness is both God’s implicit promise to life and the edge on which we can either become redeemed or remain woefully flawed people. Although I am no longer very religious, as a spiritual, nature-as-life-force, organized-universe person molded by years in the Church, I worry that forgiveness may actually be the holiest act of all — precisely because I struggle most with it.
To my Sunday School self, the search for forgiveness was a form of poverty — forgiveness was the meekness, humility, and self-punishment you resort to when all that is worth living for has worn away. Is this worth applauding if achieved?
Clearly, Jesus, the Instagram Reels entrepreneurs, and I agree that it is, but my Sunday School self lacked an understanding of how to forgive beyond the rosary. Sometimes, I lashed out at myself, ignored my emotions, and — worst of all — persuaded myself I had forgiven others, because I never learned how to truly forgive myself.
As children, forgiveness, or at least the guise of forgiveness, is compulsory. When I hurt someone’s feelings or vice versa, teachers encouraged us to express and accept remorse immediately in order to restore normality. Cultivating accountability is important, but it can have the unintended result of teaching us to apologize reflexively and, therefore, insincerely. Perhaps I struggled to forgive myself of my flaws not because they were as consequential as I imagined, but because I had no blueprint to forgive. When Instagram provided a blueprint, I still wondered: How do you know when you have forgiven yourself?
I posed the question to a close friend. “You just know you have,” she said. “When you think about the situation, you don’t feel resentment toward yourself or anyone else anymore.”
Well, obviously. Yet I still paused, if not because of what she said, then because of the confidence with which she said it. Clearly, she had arrived at this conclusion many times, and I probably just hold grudges better than the next person. But, reflecting on her certainty, I realized that I had been trained to look for the wrong signs of my own forgiveness.
I will not realize that I have forgiven myself through an epiphany, and that epiphany will certainly not occur in front of a brilliant sunset or laughing with my friends around a dinner table. My life is not a movie; there is no fade to black, no denouement that reconciles each strand of internal conflict with forever. The feeling of triumph that emerges in those sentimental moments does not often withstand the inevitable mundanity to come.
For that reason, forgiveness has not proven a linear process, and I am not someone who can make it one. When I realize that I have forgiven myself, I will simultaneously realize that I had done so long before; it is and will continue to be a cyclical realization. For the first time last fall, I made kindness toward myself a conscious habit. I walked dozens of miles through Cambridge and Boston. I learned the lyrics of new albums by heart. I confessed to my notes app nearly every day. I decided what I would not share with my friends, and I became a better listener because of it.
Even still, I considered my kindness to myself a means to an end, and self-forgiveness a receding destination. I once felt ashamed that I had not yet emerged on the other side, without realizing the significance of my position in the middle. I had changed my habits precisely becauseI wanted a transformation. How I chose to forgive myself only determined who would emerge from it. This is who I am now — more pensive, intuitive, and kinder to myself than before.
On the night I returned to campus, I finally removed the print from my closet. Soon I will hang it above my bed, its angel a reminder that every day begins and ends with compassion.
— Associate Magazine Editor Jade Lozada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.