Self-forgiveness. How do we do this? What I do know is that doing it is absolutely essential in our process of becoming our best/highest selves. Sometimes I even wonder if it is what living as humans is really all about. I certainly have had my challenges with it; and nearly everyone that I work with struggles to forgive, especially himself or herself. How did we come to be such harsh self-critics?
I suppose there are as many answers to this as there are people. I always have clients look at their families as well as our culture. It is a core part of our social structure to judge. Most of our institutions are integrated with our legal system now. And in this integration process we have come to view so much through the “right or wrong” lens. Right – you win, wrong – you lose. Just like a court case. Even our family lives our riddled with this skewing. Our behavior has become right/wrong, good/bad vs. inappropriate, immature, unconscious, or otherwise. With this right/wrong labeling comes a sense of shame and guilt. Unfortunately, the shame and guilt has been misused to lead us to become harsh, and often unforgiving, judges of ourselves rather than monitors of our behaviors, followed up with behavior changes as we recognize our infractions towards others.
When I discuss self-forgiveness, guilt becomes the main subject. Here is how I talk about this much misunderstood emotion. Guilt is good for two things; to help us modify future behavior and to help us make amends. If we are feeling guilty about something, we need to look at the event/issue. Determining how our behavior was inappropriate/hurtful, we examine our part in the process. In a healthy model, we take responsibility for our part, whoever else is involved takes responsibility for theirs and then we modify behaviors in order to no longer repeat actions that cause us to feel guilty or poorly about ourselves. Secondly, we say we are sorry- apologize – make amends for our infractions in a heartfelt manner. Again, in a healthy relationship, the behaviors change, so we are not repeatedly making amends for the same thing(s) again and again. If we find ourselves doing this, repeatedly apologizing, we need to look at this action. Are we unable to follow through on change or are we apologizing for simply being? Either way it is an issue that calls for our attention.
Inability to follow through on change indicates lack of commitment or confusion of true desires. Both of these areas can be complex issues, requiring individual attention, not to be addressed here. But what I will say is that in a relationship in which one person is not able to, or does not, make change, it is a fairly clear signal that their commitment to themselves is greater than their commitment to the relationship. This is not right or wrong, just is. How it impacts the “other” in the relationship becomes the dance of the relationship, thus creating what may or may not be a viable relationship – more on this at another time.
Apologizing for simply being indicates a lack of self-confidence and worthiness. This often comes from a childhood or relationships where the individual was seen as a burden, taking up space and resources just by being alive. This can happen when parents do not have healthy and abundant energy to fulfill the parenting role well. In the extreme cases, parents are abusive, mistreating children in ways that cause the child to feel that they are wrong or bad without the maturity and discernment to understand that it is about behavior (perhaps not even theirs but their parents behavior) and not who they are. This can impact our core sense of self. In these cases, our healing comes through relearning our worthiness and lovability. Not always easy, but always worth the effort and time invested. Because the truth is, we are all worthy and lovable.
In my times of pondering behaviors that cause guilt, I have come to believe most of our actions that cause us future guilt are a result of our immature desires to be loved, to be recognized, to be seen and heard, to be accepted, to be understood and to feel all of these things deeply. It is often our egocentric behaviors seeking these fulfillments in ways that ultimately won’t get us there, but are often unconscious attempts to do so, that cause us our guilt. As I considered my own weaknesses and past behaviors, I am well aware that I wanted to love and be loved, deeply and openly. I wanted to be heard and accepted just as I am. My intentions were never to cause others harm or distress, but to fulfill my neediness before I learned to fulfill it myself through self-love and self-acceptance. And then through that self-love and self-acceptance, develop a life that reflected well my strengths and desires.
The path of self-forgiveness frees up energy to be utilized for living our best life. It can open our minds and hearts to thinking, creating and acting in new and inspired ways as we release our ties to the past and the heaviness of judgments. Deeply forgiving ourselves and others through on-going life review, making peace with past hurts and releasing our need to judge are all gifts that we can give to ourselves; we need no one’s permission to engage in these processes and access the freedom that waits beyond.