When we talk forgiveness, we are also talking about being able to forgive ourselves, not how we need to give and receive forgiveness externally (which is usually how people view forgiveness as a process).
I want to tell a story from my own life as that way it takes it away from the theory and into real life. This story is about some people, ex-colleagues I care about (a lot) who forgave me for a career error I made. Yet I refused to do so for myself, until recently, it’s something that has really influenced me for many years, I’ve been dragging the shame around, and it popped up and released as we worked through the process last month.
I can speak from first hand experience about how a lack of internal forgiveness can lead us to punish ourselves far more than what anyone else can.
I’ll take you briefly through the circumstances. I was a mid 20 something, starting out my career in advertising, working in my second role – one with more seniority and responsibility. The industry is known to be fast-paced and quite a hectic environment, where you need to juggle many tasks and also meet unbelievable deadlines, working long hours or under pressure. I’m not making any excuses here; I’m just setting the scene, it’s also often referred to as a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture, so for all the long hours there is lots of celebration and reward, it’s really social, the people are dynamic, and it’s provided me with some of the best times and experiences of my career, and life. You learn something every day in that business, that’s for sure.
I was working on a large FMCG client (fast moving consumer goods – for those not used to that acronym) and we’d just completed a promotion campaign. My job at this stage of the process was to call each of the prize winners, and let them know what they had won. It was one of the best parts of the job, hearing how excited people were. In this case I had to call nearly 200 people; I was surrounded by spreadsheets and hulled myself up in a room with a phone for an entire week making countless calls, leaving messages and returning them over again – ensuring contact details were accurate, making sure address details were correct for the mail house to send gifts. The 40 main prize winners all needed flights/ accommodation/ transfers and itineraries interstate to Sydney for 3 days of shooting ads. This may seem like a small task but it’s actually a lot of organisation and liaison to coordinate travel plans for 40 people (when you’re not used to it), as well as the remaining other top tier prizes. I feel exhausted just thinking about it all again…
In the process I rang the wrong person on the list, muddling up where I was, and told them they had won a prize that they actually hadn’t. So again for those who don’t know, all those competitions you see on TV and read in magazines, they actually have a lot of government regulation on running them, you need a permit to conduct them, and you need to send a record of prize winners to the state authorities. Businesses take them very seriously, with marketing teams, legal teams and public affairs departments working on the terms and conditions and how to communicate them fairly to people for months before they start. To award the wrong prize is actually a big f*ck up on my part (I curse my attention to detail skill, that I usually pride myself on). But that’s not the main part of the story; the part I was ashamed for was the next step I took.
I switched the names on the list and didn’t tell anyone. Thinking I could hide my mistake. But for all the times you try to hide something, you usually get caught. My Mum’s words sting my ears as I write this, ‘telling the truth is always the best option when you’re unsure’. I was aware that the list was drawn by an independent party, and published in newspapers, so when winners were announced incorrectly I was found out. I knew it was inevitable but I kept silent to my superiors for over a week, which resulted in them being drawn over hot coals with the Client, and the Client being drawn over hot coals with the permit authorities and given a warning that their license could be revoked next time they want to run a promotion (which is MASSIVE when they run about $10m worth of promotions every year!). I kept silent while questions were being asked, and I shudder now typing this. I hope you can understand the enormity of the choice I made. It caused me nights of insomnia at the time, losing the trust of my Managers and my team, loss of faith from the Client not only in me and my abilities – but also for the entire Agency. I was disciplined and handed a warning – in fact I’m surprised I even kept my job!
It gives me shivers thinking back to how (easily) I could have managed the situation so much better. Yet it also gives me immense faith in people when I consider how my Managers handled it, how they chose to see me beyond this one mistake – to put themselves on the line for me, and to give me another chance when I barely deserved it. I stuck it out with that business for another year and I didn’t step out of line, once. The experience actually transformed me as a person, it taught me that I needed to ask for help when I was unsure, that I can’t be perfect but to admit it when things go wrong before they go off the rails, and you often can’t solve a problem all by yourself.
But my point for this post is not to publicly call myself out, but rather to highlight that this incident kept me in a ball of shame for a long time, for many years, and I feel that I only released it in the last month. This ball of shame played out with me putting my future Managers on pedestals and kept me trapped in a belittled position, like I was working in a cage to appease Managers and Clients – prove that I am an honest and trustworthy person all over again (even when they had no knowledge of this incident). It got better with time, but it would niggle when problems came up and having to speak my truth or choices I wanted to make. Even when the original Managers had long ago released me from my mistake, in fact they are both still friends of mine now, I kept myself locked up in my own cage of being a ‘wrong-doer’.
I no longer see myself as a ‘bad’ person, but rather I am simply a person who made a bad choice. There is a difference. The difference is the forgiveness of the act internally and helps me to overcome the shame and seeing myself as fundamentally flawed.
I feel vulnerable, shy and awkward sharing this post, but I know it’s also important for my current business to put myself on the line and also demonstrate what internal forgiveness feels like. I’m not perfect and have no illusions of ever having been. But I do now pride myself in being able to tell the truth, and that’s important in my line of business – authenticity and integrity is critical for coaching (and life). In retrospect, it was a great lesson to learn and shaped my future in ways I wouldn’t have imagined at the time. What this last month and process has taught me is this: how valuable it is to forgive yourself, and how we can trap ourselves in our own pain long after an event has passed and others (who we tend to project requiring forgiveness from) have managed to let it go.
Experiment a little…
All I ask for you to consider today is how you may be keeping yourself in a cage.
Is there something you need to release yourself from, through forgiving yourself for a past action?