The word forgive has several meanings. “To grant pardon… to absolve.. to give up all claim… to cease to feel resentment against…to cancel an indebtedness…”.
Forgiveness becomes even more complex when you consider forgiving yourself.
Why? Feelings of doubt can complicate self-forgiveness. How do you know if you’re letting yourself off the hook? Or if you’re not taking responsibility for your actions? Is there a statute of limitations on guilt? If you forgive yourself, does that mean you have no more remorse?
Shame and guilt factor in here, and they reside on many different levels. Perhaps you married someone you didn’t really love, went through a bitter divorce, and now your children are suffering. Maybe, as a teenager, you repeatedly stole money from your parents while successfully blaming your brother. So, his high school years were marred by many weeks of being grounded. and he struggled with getting on his feet. Or maybe you were severely depressed and tried to take your own life, devastating your parents. Now you realize that they tried to help, but you refused treatment.
You look back on that now and shudder, “How could I have done that? Why did I make such horrible decisions?”
But since this is in the past, does that mean all is okay now? Are you still capable of hurting others this way?
The voice of narcissism versus the voice of obsession…
There are many people in the world who never take responsibility for their actions. They struggle with narcissism, meaning they’re highly self-absorbed and can be extremely manipulative. They not only let themselves off the hook far too easily, they may blame anyone around them for feeling hurt. The following thought process, referred to as the The Narcissist’s Prayer, is funny — unless of course you’re on the receiving end of these words.
That didn’t happen. And if it did, it wasn’t that bad. And if it was, that’s not a big deal. And if it is, that’s not my fault. And if it was, I didn’t mean it. And if I did — you deserved it.
That’s narcissism all right. There’s tremendous insecurity underneath that relentless barrage of blame, but that doesn’t change the damage done.
Some fortunate, non-narcissistic individuals have a clear understanding of innate human fallibility which allows them to learn from their mistakes and move on. Others have faith that guides them to forgiveness, both for others and for themselves.
But what if you wake up in the middle of the night and obsess about the smallest of things — everything from what you said at a party to who you slept with in high school to the catty thing you said about a friend five years ago? What if they’re more serious things that you now realize were horrible mistakes?
Especially if you suffer with anxiety or depression, or even more specifically, perfectionism – these thoughts can run you ragged, keep you up at night and stop you from ever having a true sense of self-esteem. You can never — even in your own mind — live down your past.
If you carry this kind of shame, here are five things you can try.
Five steps to help heal…
1. Choose to be engaged with the present, instead of the past.
A lack of self-forgiveness keeps you rooted in the past.
So guess what? You’re going to miss all of who you could be in this moment, and even rob the people in your life now from having a fully-engaged dad or mom, a friend or a colleague.
What a waste…and it’s something for which “future you” may need to forgive “today you.”
2. Learn to tolerate and accept the mistake.
Years ago, I tried to fix a mistake by making another one. I was dating someone who’d been abusive to me. I was ashamed of not getting out, so I married him in order to convince myself (and probably others) that the relationship had been fine.
That was stupid. A huge mistake.
Letting go of guilt and shame doesn’t involve relabeling a mistake as not a mistake. It doesn’t mean justifying or rationalizing it. It takes having the integrity to admit you were wrong and tolerating that knowledge.
Your mistake doesn’t define you any more than the choices you’re proud of. We’re all a composite of our mistakes, our foolishness, our selfishness — and our successes. Give yourself the compassion you’d give others.
3. Make a choice to let go, not of the responsibility, but of the barrage of guilt and shame.
There’s a difference between taking responsibility for the hurtful impact your choices made on others, and carrying around guilt for years and years. The first reflects integrity. The second can be self-destructive. And if it turns into shame, where you not only feel guilt, but begin defining yourself as a “bad person” because you did it, then you can have a more severe problem.
4. Determine if there’s an action that would be healing.
Think about if there’s something you can do to help remedy the mistake. If so, act on it after giving it some thought. Be careful. Remember you can’t fix it — but there may be an action that feels healing.
Perhaps it’s an apology or conversation with a person you wronged. Perhaps it’s going back to the store and paying for a candy bar you stole when you were eight. Perhaps it’s recognizing that you need to make some changes in your current life circumstances.
5. Know that you can grow and learn from your mistakes.
“Shame is a helpful emotion if it lasts ten seconds and leads to a change in behavior.” Decide how you want to let an old mistake, or one that you just made yesterday, change the way you behave. And then go for it.
You actually learn far more from mistakes you make than you do successes — if you don’t riddle yourself with shame.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on January 14, 2017; updated on July 24, 2022.