Opinion | Matthew Perry Learned Something That We All Need to Discover

Toward the end of Matthew Perry’s autobiography, he wrote about an encounter in which his mother told him she was proud of him.

“I’d wanted her to say that my whole life,” he wrote. “When I pointed this out she said, ‘What about a little forgiveness?’”

This is the sound of shame perpetuating itself in a family: two people longing for acknowledgment and absolution and answering a direct request for love in that moment with a different request of their own.

Shame is a dominant theme in Mr. Perry’s memoir and, it would seem, in his life. Mr. Perry, to his credit, was determined to break the cycle. “I do forgive you,” he told his mother (and there’s a tone of real surprise in his voice in the audiobook, which he narrates). He writes of how he also forgave his father, who left his mother when he was a baby. And he repeatedly expresses his adoration for close friends, co-stars, lovers and assistants, along with his hopes that they might someday forgive him for everything he put them through as his addiction laid waste to his life.

In fact, the one person Mr. Perry can’t seem to forgive, at least for a majority of his book, is himself. He casts himself as the person who deserves blame for everything that happens. He calls himself selfish and lazy and says that he’s a narcissist who’s also insecure. Even when he’s clinging to life in the hospital with a ruptured colon caused by complications from his opiate addiction, he’s so ashamed that he can barely speak because, as he writes, “my greatest fear had come true, which is that I did this to myself.” He confesses to being humiliated by his good fortune and fame, disgusted that he could have so much and do so little with it. Mr. Perry’s life, by his own telling, seemed to have become, for long stretches, a manifestation of his shame, a guilty burden that he couldn’t live up to.

Shame has the power to poison all the supposed benefits of success: It turns money into self-destruction, fame into a lifelong curse and love into fear of being left behind once you’re recognized as the awful, lazy, selfish person you presume yourself to be. Shame can even turn a loving conversation between a mother and son into the shooting pain of neediness and guilt and alienation. As Ben Affleck said to Vanity Fair about his own past struggles, “Shame is really toxic. There is no positive byproduct of shame.” If you carry shame with you to heaven, heaven itself will feel like hell.

Very few of us can understand the particular strain of shame that comes with the celebrity Mr. Perry attained. But the way we understand stories like his — and the way we mourn a loss like this one, particularly of a person who was so honest about his struggles — can tell us a lot about how we deal with these issues in our own lives and relationships.

Too often we treat people’s mistakes as moral failures and shape their deaths into cautionary tales rather than recognize our own intense need for love and connection and admit how encumbered by shame many of us are. We continue to have our own versions of the conversation Mr. Perry had with his mother, looking for love and forgiveness from figures in our lives instead of locating these things within ourselves.

We shouldn’t paint a life like Mr. Perry’s as fatally flawed or doomed from the start. We shouldn’t mourn only the loss of a talent and portray the offscreen life as a series of tragic missteps made by someone who almost literally had it all yet still couldn’t find his way to happiness. We shouldn’t perpetuate the myth that fame and fortune can buy someone out of despair and that our failures and mistakes are our fault alone, some freakish combination of bad wiring and bad choices.

Instead, let’s grapple with how much we might have had in common with him: our own mistakes, our own loneliness, our own series of failures, even our own inevitable deaths. No one dies triumphantly, after all. Most people don’t have as many real friends as they’d like. And people who get everything they ever wanted sometimes want a little more, in spite of their best intentions. That’s how it feels to be human.

A beautiful legacy of Mr. Perry’s life is that, in spite of the enormous weight of his shame, he told the truth about everything. He refused to treat his most embarrassing and horrific and lowest moments as a secret. He truly believed that his honesty about his neediness and his pain and his big failures might help someone else.

And what’s the cure for all of this shame? Mercifully, Mr. Perry seemed to figure it out eventually: to forgive yourself. And when you find forgiveness inside your own heart, suddenly, it’s everywhere else as well.

At the very end of his autobiography, he can see clearly how hard the people around him have worked to save him and comfort him, in spite of great obstacles and difficulties and fears. He becomes courageous enough to feel empathy for the pain he’s caused instead of shielding himself from that reality. He recognizes that when we forgive ourselves for being flawed and human, we naturally spread that forgiveness to others. Forgive yourself every morning, every night, every few minutes, if that’s what it takes.

Some might argue that this flies in the face of the accountability of recovery, but in truth it compliments it: You admit that you have caused pain and that you’ve behaved wretchedly, but you also recognize that you weren’t the first to hurt people and make gigantic mistakes and you won’t be the last. You tell yourself again and again: I am doing my best. And in fact, every life is an impossible tangle of mistakes. Flailing confusedly, craving more love, more safety, less loneliness isn’t just human; it’s the signature move of every human alive.

What’s incredibly sad but ultimately hopeful is that by the end of his book, Mr. Perry seemed to be waking up to the simple joys of gratitude, connection and empathy. He seemed ready to forgive himself for not living up to his own perfectionist standards. And yes, behind most spectacularly tragic flameouts is someone who expects way too much of himself — expects to heal his mother’s pain at being abandoned by her husband; expects to entertain and delight every person he encounters who wants Chandler Bing and nothing less; expects to remain a young, lithe, lovable Friend forever — but these impossibly high expectations are the reason forgiveness is so crucial to survival.

His honesty in the face of his enormous pain should remind us that all human lives are formed from a tangle of mistakes. We will all mess up, today and tomorrow, but forgiveness shapes us into something less punitive and more sublime, a person who offers love instead of demanding it, a person who seeks peace instead of vengeance, a person who has the courage to say what Mr. Perry finally says to himself at the very end of his book:

“I look out at the water, and I say very quietly, ‘Maybe I’m not so bad after all.’”

Heather Havrilesky writes the “Ask Polly” advice column and is the author of “Foreverland: On the Divine Tedium of Marriage” and “How to Be a Person in the World.”

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