Do You Have the Right to Forget Yourself?

Recently, our email inboxes have been flooded with companies updating their privacy policies in accordance with Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation (“GDPR”) law. Included within this legislation is the EU’s Right to be Forgotten mandate. A concept that’s been around since 2006, the idea gives Europeans the right to request material be removed from European search results if deemed to be “inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive,” and not related to discourse regarding the public interest.

Google (where 90% of Europeans go for their searches) is at its own discretion when complying with the requests. The study found that, if the delisting request was of a press article, Google refused 89% of the time. The search giant isn’t inclined to delist items that would scrub crimes from the historical record. However, for people who are looking to move on, it is more accommodating. Examples include granting removal to a rape victim in Germany who was named in a newspaper story and an Italian woman whose name was included in a decades-old story about her husband’s murder.

What struck me about this study and other coverage about Google’s policies is that a significant segment of takedown requests related to behavior or viewpoints that perhaps were no longer representative of the person in question. Cynically, one could think that people wanted to hide their true selves from prospective employers or new friends and family. However, the more likely scenario is the people had changed their stances and felt like the representations of them online reflected a past-self that was no longer relevant.

Whichever the case might be, it got me thinking — In a world where the Internet never forgets, do you have the right to forget yourself and move on without the baggage of your past?

On social media, it’s becoming a common tactic to dig up quotes someone said five or even twenty years ago and use the contradiction in statements to discredit them. However, if that person is actively adjusting who they are to the information in their world, and the lessons they learn, something they said in the past is likely not pertinent for who they are today. For example, it’s common for someone to ascribe to one political affiliation as a youth, only to have their thinking evolve and shift to another after they are exposed to new ideas and expand their life experience. Should we still judge that person for their old thoughts and apply that “evidence” of their character to actions they take today?

Given that our bodies are in a constant process of regeneration, we are literally not the same person physically year after year. And, if we are focused on learning from our mistakes, we are not the same person mentally or emotionally, either.

The one thing in this world we can be sure of is change. Anything that sits still long enough decays, rusts, putrefies, etc., including us. One of the ways we keep ourselves still is by not forgiving ourselves for things we have done in the past, letting go of them (forgetting) and moving on free of the burden.

Although, many of us are good at learning from our mistakes, we often do not forgive ourselves enough to fully move on emotionally. Thus, we trudge through life with an increasing load of baggage, even when our friends, family or co-workers have already forgiven us and forgotten all about our transgression. The effect is a mental state that subverts growth and reinforces the old stories (beliefs) we tell ourselves, such as not being good enough, lovable enough, worthy of financial reward for our work or help from others, etc.

Forgiving and forgetting isn’t only about the significant transgressions; it is essential for the small things, too. From being irritable with a loved-one to missing a commitment to speaking words we later regret, every day we have the opportunity to hit the reset button on who we were yesterday and start fresh as a new person with new perspectives. You don’t need to wait for people around you to give you permission to forgive yourself. Forgiveness can begin with you at any time, and when it does you can start fresh and do things in new ways that are more in alignment with the version of yourself you’d rather be.

When we are in the depths of our remorse, it can be tough to know how to start the self-forgiveness process. Here are a few suggestions to help you find the path.

2. Own up genuinely to yourself and others. Real change begins with you, and it only sticks when you are honestly committed to improving on your past. To do that, acknowledge what happened, what your actions were, what thoughts or feelings motivated you and how you could have done better.

3. Leave the past in the past. Often it can be difficult to forgive ourselves and move on when we get stuck in an endless-loop of what-if scenarios. By accepting you can’t change the past, but you can change the future, you can feel empowered to take steps to forgive yourself.

4. Understand you did the best you could with the resources and knowledge you had at the time. A mentor once told me, you’re only responsible for the knowledge you have, but once you have it, you’re responsible to use it. There’s no point in beating yourself up for not having the hindsight you do after the transgression has occurred. Acknowledging this allows the reset button to truly take effect.

5. Take stock of what you stand for. Past mistakes often illuminate what we hold important, such as our core values, morals or credos for living the life we want. As you evaluate the situation to get yourself to a place of forgiveness, think about how you could have acted differently that would have been in better alignment with your personal values. This can help you reinforce those commitments and behave differently next time.

When true and complete self-forgiveness happens, a remarkable shift takes place inside us. We begin to look back on our past as if it belongs to another person entirely. It’s not that the events didn’t happen, it’s just as if they just happened to someone else – someone whose story has no bearing on who we are or what choices we are making in the present.

In truth, the past only exists in our minds. When we fully process and release any attachment to that past, we can move on more profoundly than any deleted internet link will allow. This is what it means to really “forgive and forget.”

This week, take a moment to examine anything you have not forgiven about yourself. What is it about these things that cause you to hold on to them? How is the pain they cause benefitting you and how is it holding you back? Then, write some steps you can take this week to completely place that event in the past, release it, and hit the reset button for a better tomorrow. With a clean slate, you get to be your best definition of self and grow closer to the best expression of yourself.

“Mistakes are always forgivable, if one has the courage to admit them.” — Bruce Lee, Hong Kong and American actor, film director and martial artist. 1940-1973

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