Own your mistakes, and be sorry for them.
There was a girl I used to be friends with in highschool who I treated like absolute shit.
I would make jokes at her expense and call her rude names, but still called her my friend so I had somewhere to go on the weekends. Deep down, I really did like her because she was a beautiful person, but I ignored all of the great things about her and instead, made fun of her about her weight.
I could blame it on being young and naive, on my own lack of self-esteem, or on any number of things, but the reality is, I bullied this girl. I was mean to her, I used her, and I hurt her feelings.
We all make mistakes and do things we might not be too proud of in the future. Making mistakes is part of being human, and some will always be worse than others. But the ability to look at the mistakes of your past, take responsibility for them, and own those actions is something everyone should do.
In 2012, Kristen Stewart was caught having an affair with the director of her film, Snow White and the Huntsman. They were caught on camera, and she offered an emotional apology to everyone the scandal affected. Of course, cheating on her boyfriend with a married man was a terrible thing to do, and she acknowledged how damaging her actions were, and openly owned up to them. “I lit my universe on fire and I watched it burn,” she said of the affair.
Robert Downey Jr. is as famous for his roles in movies as he is for his turbulent life in the 90s and early 2000s – a life filled with drugs, alcohol and a string of bad decisions, like breaking into his neighbor’s home while they were out, stripping down to his underwear and passing out in their 11 year-old son’s bed.
After years of recovery, the actor has beaten his demons, taken responsibility for his actions during those years, and says it helped him to become who he is today.
“Job one is to get out of that cave. A lot of people do get out, but don’t change. So the thing is to get out and recognize the significance of that aggressive denial of your fate, come through the crucible forged into a stronger metal,” Downey once said of his struggle. And he is absolutely right.
If you’ve been a toxic person, and have hurt people in the past, the first step is to acknowledge, “Hey, I’ve been a pretty terrible person”. Admitting you were wrong doesn’t make you a terrible person now. And recognizing you were wrong will make you a better person in the end.
Admitting it is really important because it means you’ve realized your actions were damaging. If you’re harboring guilt about things from the past, it’s probably affecting your health.
If you do something wrong, feeling guilt, apologizing and moving on, is the correct emotional response. But carrying around the guilt for a large period of time is one of the most significant emotional drainers we can experience. A 2015 study published in Jama Psychiatry, found prolonged guilt can actually shrink the brain, and lead to extreme stress, and a 2004 study from the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine found guilt affects the immune system and can cause serious problems, like cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders.
The reason we might feel guilt for the things we’ve done in the past is because those actions don’t line up with the morals and values we hold true today. Maybe you made some subtly racist comments a few years ago, but you wouldn’t dream of saying those things now, because you’ve grown as a person, and your lived experience has changed your outlook on those kinds of actions. Good for you!
It is absolutely okay to grow. Your morals will change as you move through life, and so will your opinions and values. None of us are born into this world perfect. This is one of the reasons it is really important to acknowledge and own your past mistakes. Apologize for saying or doing those things when you did, don’t make excuses and call out other people if you hear them saying similar things.
A lot of the time, problematic behavior is a result of misinformation or naivety, and once someone is exposed to another worldview, they educate themselves and grow as people. In the same way it is okay to like problematic things, as long as you aren’t problematic, it’s okay to admit you did bad things in the past, as long as you don’t do those things now.
You shouldn’t try to hide the toxic things you have done, because living with secrets is almost as damaging as feeling guilty about them. Neuroscientists now believe holding onto secrets puts significant stress on the brain. The cingulate cortex, essential to our emotional responses, is wired to tell the truth, so by holding a secret inside, you are literally stopping your brain from functioning properly. If the terrible thing you did is a particularly deeply held secret, every time you think about it, the stress hormone, cortisol, can flood the brain, affecting memory, blood pressure, your metabolism, and even your gastrointestinal tract, which needs to stay healthy, because it is crucial to overall health.
Dealing with your secret however, and being honest with yourself can be beneficial to your health. A 2008 study by the National Institute of Health found forgiveness was linked to improving cardiovascular health, and another study from the same year found people who forgive others and themselves are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and have lower blood pressure than people who live with anger and resentment.
There is nothing wrong with admitting you did anyone wrong, especially if you’ve learned from it. If you’re humble enough to admit your mistakes, you’re probably not as bad of a person as you think you are.
I struggled with how much I bullied my friend for years. For a long time, I was too ashamed to contact her and apologize to her directly, because I didn’t want to face the reality of how much I had hurt her feelings. I still thought about her all of the time, though, and hoped she was doing well in her life.
Now I don’t notice people’s bodies, and even if I do, I don’t let what someone looks like affect my opinion of them. I am passionately against bullying and body shaming, having experienced both of them myself and realized the impact they can have on someone. I want to make sure other people don’t have to experience what I did to my friend, because it was absolutely terrible of me to bully her.
On my most recent trip to my hometown, I walked past her in the street. She gave me a polite nod and a genuine smile, and I returned it. I don’t know whether she has forgiven me, but I want her to know I am deeply sorry for what I did, and I hope it didn’t affect her too badly, because she didn’t deserve it.
I was a terrible person in the past, but I don’t think I am anymore. And it is absolutely okay for me to admit that.
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Comment: Would you ever admit to being a bad person?