"Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn't know before you learned it."
~ Maya Angelou

“Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.”
~ Maya Angelou


Forgiving Ourselves

For most people, “not knowing” is a difficult thing. It brings up fears of failure, ridicule, shame, and self-doubt. As a result, we often find it hard to forgive ourselves when we make a mistake, and instead tend to intensify the pain by beating ourselves up so that we will remember how bad it felt and avoid making the mistake again in the future.

The problem with this strategy is two-fold. First, the guilt, shame, and self-loathing that comes with not forgiving ourselves drives us into the lower 20% of our brain (the brainstem). This is not the part of the brain that makes well-informed decisions. It just reacts, and therefore, we do not have access to the knowledge, skill, and purposefulness that will be necessary for us to have in order to succeed.

Secondly, this strategy requires that we keep the pain alive to keep the learning alive, and given that pain will inevitably fade over time, so will the awareness of the problems caused by the mistake.

A better strategy is outlined beautifully by the renowned poet and author, Maya Angelou, i.e., “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” The truth is that “not knowing” is actually a natural part of life. When we didn’t know how to walk, we fell down a lot. However, as babies, we didn’t lay on the floor berating ourselves, we took what we learned about balance and applied it to our next attempt.

I suggest we take that natural wisdom we had as a child and apply it to our lives today. Does that mean we minimize our mistakes and pretend that nothing went wrong? No. The key is to recognize that every time we try something and fail, there is learning… we have new knowledge that we can use to apply to doing things differently in the future.

The parts of the brain that think about the future are the frontal lobes (part of the neocortex) and therefore, to free ourselves from the brainstem, we must be willing to forgive ourselves for what we didn’t know and focus on what we learned, and imagine doing this differently in the future.

The bottom line is, as with walking, learning to read and write, ride a bike, swim, etc. there are things we can’t know until we learn them. Therefore, I suggest we accept this state of “not knowing” as the inevitable precursor to “knowing” and practice forgiveness when we make mistakes from this state.
Once we have rejected the chains of shame and guilt as learning tools, we will be free to apply what we now know to a more purposeful future. And, isn’t this what we would recommend to those we love?

~ All the best, Dr. Bill