Potential and Self-forgiveness

4 min read

The concept of not living up to one’s potential is the malignant foundation of a lifelong, self-destructive, cancer-like belief structure. This terminal theory has probably broken more spirits and relationships than any other in modern-day society.  We start the conditioning as early as grade school with comments such as:  “Little Billy is not performing to the best of his abilities.”

Up until this point in Little Billy’s life, his parents may have thought that he was perfect and now he is somehow tainted or less than perfect. Alternatively, Little Billy’s parents may have had their own fears about him not being “perfect” and now their fears have been externally validated.   Either way, after the conference Little Billy’s parents will go home and perhaps reinforce to him that he is not “living up to his potential.”  Little Billy is already doing the best he can but from this point forward he will slowly (or quickly depending on his environment) be conditioned to believe that he should be more or something else.

Little Billy will come to believe that he could always have tried just a little harder and Big Billy may go on to do amazing things but whatever he does will never be enough because he has been conditioned to believe that he is not enough. He will find himself mired in a bottomless pit of “could have/should have done more” for a long time to come.  This line of thinking is an exhausting dead-end with the emphasis on “dead” because many people have gone to their graves never believing that they lived up to their potential.

This is not a rally against teachers or parents or the Little Billy inside each of us; this is a rally for humanity.  As teachers and/or parents, we are all doing the best we can and it is indeed our job in these roles to see the best in our students and children.  However, none of us can foresee the future so for as much as we may want Little Billy to go on to become President, Big Billy may become a drug-dealing prostitute[1].

We often mistakenly believe that we are being supportive or motivating someone when we suggest that he is not living up to his potential but what we are actually offering is little more than judgment and attempting to push our own ideas of success onto another.[2]  Support has nothing to do with judgment and all to do with love.  The best way we can support those that we care about is to accept, to forgive and to have gratitude, compassion and love for ourselves so that we can easily and freely provide those things to others.

I used to ask my children when they brought their report cards home: “was that the best you could have done?”  Sometimes they responded in the affirmative and sometimes in the negative.  I now understand that it was always the best they could have done because if they could have done better they would have!  My haranguing them did not help the situation and no doubt made it worse because in addition to them being judged by a standard, I was reinforcing that they were somehow less-than.  (So sorry, girls.  Please know that I have forgiven myself for my role in your conditioning).

Many of the people that society deems as successful have gotten to where they are by waking up every day and working tirelessly to “be the best that they can be.” We have been conditioned to believe that the “best that we can be” has to do with status and achievement.  Ironically, our potential as individuals is typically estimated by others who base their measurement of our potential on the performance of a group into which we are somehow classified (i.e. age group, gender, race, profession, family, etc.)  Many of us accept arbitrary group standards as reality and then we seek to define the potential of the individual by measuring ourselves and/or each other against these standards.

We must remember that we are first and foremost individuals. Each of us is unique and therefore we are perfect versions of ourselves.  I believe that we, as a species, have survived this long because our human machinery innately operates optimally; we are biased for survival.  Long before our mothers and fathers conceived us, our DNA as living beings were programmed for success – that’s biology.  (I did not invent this theory; scientists from as far back as ancient Greek times proposed it long before I did).

So here’s a radical idea: what if we already are the best that we can be? I have a mantra that I use for self-acceptance, self-forgiveness self-compassion and self-love. “I am alive and I am a perfect version of me.  If I could have done better, I would have.”  It is a concept that may be difficult to grasp initially because it is so simple however we can free our minds and heal our hearts through self-forgiveness if we dare to embrace it and live it.

How different would our days be if upon waking in the morning we began our days by thinking “I am alive, I am grateful and I am perfect?” What if we viewed the start of each day as a new beginning and an opportunity for a fresh start instead of thinking about all of the things that we did not accomplish the day before or the ways that we need to improve?  How well would we sleep at night if before we crossed over into slumber our thoughts were positive, loving thoughts of self-forgiveness?  Imagine letting all the shit from the day go without guilt and without promising to ourselves and others that we will try harder tomorrow and instead say “I did the best I could today.  If I could have done better, I would have.”

If we understand that the present moment is the only moment there is and we concede that we operate optimally, then we can accept the notion that we are doing the best we can – always. In other words, we are consistently living up to our potential in the present moment!  And if we agree that each of us is an individual expression of uniqueness then we are all doing an absolutely perfect job of being ourselves.

The freedom and lightness that we gain in the space of self-forgiveness provide room for joy to blossom. Self-forgiveness also provides unlimited space for forgiving others and for having compassion for others because once we accept that we are doing the best we can each day, then we understand that everyone else is as well!  (Yes, even that drunk uncle, drug-addicted partner, lazy sister, mean brother, spoiled child, arrogant friend, creepy neighbor, etc. – all of them are doing the very best that they can each day).  The aforementioned labels and judgments all miraculously fall away when we accept and forgive ourselves.

It is liberating not to be weighed down by heavy, negative thoughts of self-loathing. And guess what magically happens when we are not weighed down? We actually become happier, more loving, more cooperative, more creative people AND we see the best in those around us!  If we accept ourselves as perfect, for we are, then we can readily accept those around us in the same way and we see the beautiful lights that they truly are instead of seeing their “potential” (aka who they could be or should be if they only did x, y or z).

We can give our loved ones, friends and fellow human beings genuine support and gratitude when we free ourselves through self-forgiveness because if they are giving us all they have got, what more can we ask? When we stop looking for those around us to measure up to our personal measuring sticks of self-judgment, we get to see their perfection and they reveal “potential” beyond what we ever could have imagined.  When we forgive ourselves for who we were and love who we are; we get to see who others become.


[1] For the record, I see nothing wrong with either one of those equally challenging career paths.

[2] We also frequently allow our fears of future failure to inhibit our ability to offer pure love and support.


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