From early childhood, our parents ask us to apologize and forgive others for our wrongdoings. What most don’t often teach us, however, is how to forgive ourselves. So we often end up feeling shameful, guilty, filthy, bad, not good or smart enough, powerless, identify ourselves as screw-ups, unlovable, unworthy and unacceptable. Sound familiar?
“Let the past go. Forgive yourself and allow peace to enter in. Life is a process of learning and we are all works in progress.” ― Eileen Anglin
Here we are adults, and we still feel the same way. We have become wounded adults who need healing. Self-forgiveness and self-acceptance offer us this opportunity to heal. Every act of acceptance neutralizes judgments we have made about ourselves. Acceptance opens up our heart to love and allows light to replace the darkness we often feel.
What is Self-Forgiveness?
According to Ferrini, self-forgiveness “is a process for unlearning our ego-based search for perfection and discovering the inner beauty, guidance, and grace that already exist in our lives.” If we were to dissect our lives, we would notice the amount of times we seek praise from others. When we don’t receive this praise, we see ourselves as lacking. This lack of praise often brings about our drive for perfectionism. It also puts others on a pedestal, which is a gesture of inequality.
We become fearful that others could possibly be right in identifying us as less-than, so we become driven to prove them wrong. This leads us to give away our power, where we end up feeling hurt or even angry. We become hurt and angry with ourselves because we are no longer living authentic lives. Instead, we begin living according to someone else’s values and beliefs.
Ferrini states that self-forgiveness allows us to respect one another while establishing healthy boundaries. If we don’t establish healthy boundaries for ourselves and others, we can eventually self-destruct. If we don’t put limits to how we allow others to influence us, we lose control of our lives.
It is by establishing healthy boundaries that we find peace within our hearts and are able to find joy and a deep confidence within ourselves. By accepting ourselves, warts and all, and unconditionally, our outlook of life changes. This allows us to become more patient, gentle, forgiving, and relaxed with ourselves and our world.
Thus, self-forgiveness is a way of taking responsibility for our lives. It is a way of acknowledging our mistakes. It requires us to learn from them and then move on.
Self-Forgiveness: Is it Necessary?
Think about the last time you made a mistake and asked for forgiveness. Go ahead. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and imagine the scenario. What emotions are you noticing? Are you becoming tearful? Are you perhaps angry at yourself?
Where in your body are you feeling the intensity of the image? Is your stomach becoming upset? Are your shoulders tensing up, feeling as if bricks are weighing you down? Now, take a couple of deep breaths in and out and when you are ready, open your eyes. Notice any red colors in the room. Notice how many rectangle shapes you can find around you.
Often, people carry these feelings with them throughout their lives. Since we are all human and make mistakes continuously, these intense emotions become quite heavy. Not feeling worthy of forgiveness eventually leads to losing an interest in many aspects of our lives.
When we experience negative emotions such as hurt, sadness, pain, shame, envy, and anger, we often feel a separation from ourselves and others. These feelings are intense, so much so that we tend to run away from them. That is why it is important to sit with the emotions without judging or condemning ourselves.
While at first this is one of the scariest things we will ever do, it is crucial. Feeling these emotions will allow us to take responsibility for these feelings. We are not dissecting or intellectualizing them, we are simply just sitting with the emotions until our mind begins to shift.
Sitting with the emptiness helps us discover that those negative emotions get in the way of seeing that love is what we seek and that the fear of not being good enough is controlling our lives. Only we can give this freedom to ourselves. We can’t depend on anyone else to give us this unconditional acceptance.So yes, self-forgiveness is necessary. Self-forgiveness brings release from burdens and pain. It takes us out of the past and into the present. When we forgive ourselves, we accept what happened in the past, including past judgments we make about ourselves, without bringing it into the present and future.
Why was the first exercise so intense?
Think back to how the exercise made you feel. When we make decisions to do something despite our values (appreciation, commitment, compassion, effort, forgiveness, friendship, honesty, hope, integrity, intimacy, love, respect, spirituality, etc.) or we are reminded of a time where we felt similarly in the past, those feelings of shame, pain, and guilt return and we react emotionally, primitively, sometimes hurting others as a result.
During times of fear, we forget to think logically and immediately feel the need to defend ourselves with whatever means necessary. When we return to our more rational frame-of-mind, we are able to see the damage we caused. The more aware we are of our triggers, the easier it will be to make a plan of action.
It is when we are able to answer the following two questions with honesty that we are able to make positive changes in our lives: 1) Did we sincerely apologize? 2) Will we work hard to not repeat the same mistake again?
But what if they think that since I have forgiven myself I am not holding myself accountable for my actions?
Some people feel that if we move on from the guilt, shame, and pain of our mistakes, we are not truly apologetic to the other person. Because we don’t want to be seen as unremorseful, we remain in the cycle of “I’m a horrible person because I did this to you.” However, by remaining in that state, we are unable to move on and we become frozen in time.
Ferrini defines guilt as “the refusal of taking responsibility for recognizing and learning from our mistakes” (p.58). He adds that holding onto the wound prevents it from healing. For example, if we were to take a piece of wood and hammer a nail into it, it would permanently damage the board. Imagine the nail being the mistake. If we were to pull that nail out, there would be a hole that would remain.
The hole represents the memory of the action. Nothing you do can erase the memory because the hole will forever be embedded. The hole is not a life sentence; it is a reminder to not keep making the same mistake over and over again. It is a reminder of our inadequacies. It is a reminder to be humble. It comes from a place where we have allowed our fear and/or sense of worth to be defined by someone else. It was never about the mistake. It was about the growing and change in perception the mistake brought up.
Moving OnHolding onto the mistakes of the past is not productive. Therefore, self-forgiveness is necessary if we want to move on to live enriching, fulfilling lives. This can only be done through self-acceptance, self-love, and self-compassion. It’s not like we can rewind our lives to the past. It would be cool, but not realistic.
This leaves us to accept the past as such and move forward. I’m pretty sure you’ve probably rehearsed the mistake in your mind a million times by now. Has the ending changed? Probably not. So let’s practice recreating the scenario to how you would have liked to have handled the situation. What morals and values did you violate? Let that lead you as you recreate the occurrence. Remind yourself that to be human is to make mistakes.
From here on out, don’t try to control your life; instead, work with it. As we know, the direction life gives us is not what we often want. But in the end, it’s what was needed. What this means is that we are obviously not in control of our lives and we don’t know what we truly need. When we learn to accept this, life becomes easier because we are no longer trying hard to manipulate or judge it.
Whatever comes to us will be fine. We are okay as we are. We just need to change our self-perception. These lessons tell us that something is not quite right; and therefore, we need to make some kind of adjustment. Every lesson that comes our way is to teach and lift us up, not judge us. These lessons require self-compassion and patience within ourselves. These qualities will come in handy when we make our next mistake.
For some of us, we will completely forget everything we just learned in this article. This is hard work. It’s definitely not for the faint-at-heart. It takes determination. But imagine the freedom that we will be rewarded when we are able to remember some of these lessons and stop this self-destructive cycle.
It does not matter how many mistakes we make. Each moment we are given, we start anew. We do not carry our mistakes with us, even though we believe we do. Each moment we are free to choose what we bring from our past. In doing so, we take responsibility of our right nows.
But What if They Don’t Forgive Me?
If we judge others, our peace is disturbed. If we accept others, we bless ourselves, for what we put out returns to us. Our reaction to others is a mirror. What we see, accept, and expect from others tells us what we need to give to ourselves. While it’s easier to use others as an excuse for why we can’t grow, it won’t change anything. Our growth remains our responsibility, no matter how much we try to shift that responsibility to others. Therefore, if others can’t forgive us, it is more about them than it is about us.
Christian Counseling for Forgiveness
Until we are able to forgive ourselves, we will continue to feel the burden of our past mistakes. This pain leaves us feeling empty inside. When we leave our judgments behind, we allow God to reside within our hearts. Living judgment-free means surrendering our need to know or control and letting God lead. It means trusting that everything happens for a reason, even though it can’t be seen. It’s having faith that He’s got us.
Sometimes, despite how hard we try, we are unable to leave the cycle of shame and guilt. If you find yourself in this position, please reach out to a therapist. God put us here on earth to learn and grow. If He had not put us here for that purpose, He would not have created us in this way.
We need to stop holding ourselves hostage by dwelling on our past mistakes. Through Christian counseling, we can accept His gift together. You are so deserving of peace, love, happiness, and a fulfilling life.
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Ferrini, P. (1997). The 12 Steps of Forgiveness (2nd ed.). South Deerfield, MA: Heartways Press.
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“Love,” courtesy of Gerome Viavant, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Tools,” courtesy of Philip Swinburn, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Drowning,” courtesy of Kristopher Roller, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Reach,” courtesy of Luke Ellis Craven, unsplash.com, CC0 License