Jordan Peterson on the art of forgiveness

Owning your mistakes matters.

  • Jordan Peterson says that recognizing your mistakes is essential, but you shouldn't "beat yourself to death" because of them.
  • Atoning and repenting for mistakes clear the path for personal growth.
  • If you avoid the responsibility of your errors, however, you're likely to make them again and again.

Apologizing shouldn't be hard. Recognizing and then owning your mistakes leads to a healthy relationship with truth. It also makes you a better person in the eyes of those close to you and those you come across in the course of your days. Honesty and integrity matter; building trust with others requires admitting when you've erred.

Requesting forgiveness is a balancing act. For example, never start an apology with "I'm sorry if…" Trying to qualify guilt is an avoidance technique. Throwing it back at the aggrieved is counterproductive. You're effectively saying, "I'm sorry that you misunderstood my intentions." That's not an apology. It's arrogance.

A large part of the problem, write Carol Tavris and Elliot Anderson in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), is that Westerners treat mistakes like personal failings, not as inherent to the learning process. An example in the book involves a pair of American researchers that sat in a Japanese classroom watching a student struggle to achieve the right answer. He was at the board for 40 minutes; the discomfort was palpable. Only later did the researchers realize they were discomfited, not the student; he stayed with the challenge, making mistake after mistake, until the right answer arrived. At that moment the entire class erupted in applause. His peers were not snickering, but cheering him on.

What a difference from a culture that treats any mistake as an existential failing, a mindset that creates guilt whenever one strays from the path. Instead of owning the mistake and asking for forgiveness we often double down. As Tavris and Anderson write:

"An unbending need to be right inevitably produces self-righteousness. When confidence and convictions are unleavened by humility, by an acceptance of fallibility, people can easily cross the line from healthy self-assurance to arrogance."

The flip side to avoiding mistakes is getting so bogged down by them progress becomes impossible. This is sometimes within the design of religion. For example, original sin. The notion that just by being born you've created a grave error is a sure way to amass loads of guilt, though, as we'll get to, the idea also has important utility when applied differently.

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As Jordan Peterson says in the video above, biblical figures made tons of mistakes; at times it seemed erring was an occupation. The Canadian professor spends a lot of energy contemplating the motivations and mindsets of Old and New Testament characters in an attempt to apply Abrahamic lessons to modernity.

Making mistakes, he continues, is simply part of life. While purposefully making them isn't intelligent, recognizing them as part of the path is essential for sanity. Peterson acknowledges that learning from mistakes without "beating yourself to death because of them" is critical in maintaining a credible relationship to society.

Discussing a topic always requiring forgiveness, infidelity, he continues:

"We don't take adulterers out into the public square and stone them. So you probably shouldn't do that to yourself. If you regret it, well then you have to repent and then atone."

Repenting, he continues, means reviewing your actions to understand why "you were so damn clueless and so damn stupid." Going through each decision point along the way provides a map for you to pinpoint faulty choices.

You likely flirted a bit too much with the object of your affection upon meeting them. You knew at the time what you were doing, but you proceeded anyway. If you're going to ask for forgiveness, you need to understand the reasons why you decided to move forward knowing where you'd end up.

"If you walk along the path and you get lost, you have to figure out how it is you wandered off the path."

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When you're able to find your way back to the path, Peterson says, repenting will help ensure you don't wander off again. Wanderers are likely to err again; sex too is an addiction. If you can uncover the exact place you faltered—the emotional pattern, the psychological justification, the dopamine rush of flirting—you know where to end the chain reaction if you should find yourself in the position again. Then growth happens.

He compares this to one of his principles: "Use no more force than is necessary." When back on the path, stop beating yourself up. Atone, repent, evolve.

The critical part of this process is making amends with those you've hurt—not "I'm sorry if…" but an honest and vulnerable "I'm sorry." Rebuilding trust is hard; for some, impossible. But for those who have recognized errors and are fully committed to not repeating old patterns of behavior, attempting to gain the trust of loved ones requires trust in yourself.

While Peterson believes the notion of original sin is not entirely beneficial, he does recognize potential growth possible in the concept:

"In this particular situation, you're a bad person, but so is everyone else, so it doesn't mark you out as particularly horrible. That doesn't mean the horribleness isn't real. But it's not just you. And then what you do about it is try to be better. And that's what you do about what's wrong with you to begin with."

We all have room to learn, Peterson concludes. The balance between avoidance and excessive guilt is challenging but attainable, for within that space resides growth. This is not far afield from Buddhism: we all suffer from perceptions created by our minds. There is a way out of suffering just as there is a road beyond original sin. United we are in emotional struggles. Remembering this fact in the midst of chaos produces calmer waters. Refusing to recognize the other in yourself, though, you're doomed to repeat your mistakes.

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