When You Can’t Forgive Yourself

November 7, 2011 at 9:20 pm | main | No comment

Forgiving someone we want to forgive can be difficult.  Forgiving someone we don’t want to forgive – or we think doesn’t deserve our forgiveness — can be harder still.   Forgiving yourself often falls into the latter category.  Even when you want to forgive yourself, you may believe in your heart that you really don’t deserve forgiveness.  After all, no one knows better than you the truth of your transgression.  You know if you ‘knew better.’  You know the moment you decided to forge ahead.  Knowing the heart and soul of your error can make forgiveness feel insurmountable.  And yet, there it is.  Without forgiveness, you are stuck in a self-defeating battle that does no one – not the injured party, not other involved individuals, and not you – any good.

It is helpful to remember that forgiveness does not mean that you are absolving yourself of responsibility or making light of a serious situation.  Forgiving yourself means taking full responsibility for your actions, committing to a path of atonement, and allowing yourself the grace to improve, try again, and go on.

Generally speaking, taking responsibility for your actions means full disclosure of your transgressions to a trusted other (therapist, church leader, family member, or support group).  In doing so, you are allowing yourself to take full responsibility and not be tempted to hide some of the more painful facts.  When you put energy into hiding, you are not putting energy into taking full responsibility.

As you take responsibility for your actions, it is important to be clear about the actions that are your responsibility versus the actions that are the responsibilities of others.  So, in the case of infidelity, take responsibility for breaking your marriage vows and betraying trust, but not for the participation of the other person involved.  In the case of a car accident, take responsibility for going above the speed limit or texting while driving, but not for being a bad person.  In the case of an accident that was not your fault, take responsibility for being powerless over the situation.  Sometimes holding on to blame and holding on to the allusion of control can feel preferable to letting go and admitting powerlessness.

Committing to a path of atonement means taking stock of the damages done as well as the long term consequences of your actions and, in that light, determining your course of recovery.  This includes making amends, taking natural consequences, committing to long term repair as well as evaluating shortcomings that may have led to the transgression.  If you notice you have a pattern of lying, then it is reasonable to commit to addressing that issue in therapy with the goal of becoming honest.  If you notice that you tend to minimize your wife’s role as a wife or mother, then it is reasonable to address the basis of your self-esteem as well as your view of women in therapy.  If you tend to sweep problems under the carpet, then it is reasonable to address them with your partner in therapy.

If followed with energy, sincerity and commitment, the path of the atonement has the capacity to rebuild trust.  In the case of infidelity, breaking all ties openly, getting rid of gifts from the affair, disclosing the timeline of the affair (without the sexual details), maintaining transparency, and getting into therapy are all trust builders.  In the case of letting down a child, admitting fault and acting to repair through discussion, time, and making good on the promise are important trust builders.

Finally, it is important to allow yourself the grace to try again – perhaps harder this time and certainly with more mindfulness.  While perfectly made, we are, none of us, perfect.  You probably wouldn’t feel shame if you didn’t have the capacity to know better and do better.  You probably wouldn’t feel guilt if you felt like what you do or say doesn’t matter.  It does.  With that in mind, allow yourself to be as whole as you can be.  As you allow yourself to grow closer to your potential, you will have that much more positive energy to share with those around you.

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