Despite how critical it is to our healing, often we are not taught to forgive ourselves.
We are told, however, the value of “forgive and forget” and the importance of forgiving others. It’s impressed upon us the weight that carrying those heavy emotions will take its toll, and we must let them go in order to move forward. So why does it feel so unnatural to turn that same forgiveness inward?
It’s important to forgive, but your forgiveness shouldn’t always be reserved for others. There’s a second half to it, one too often hanging in unspoken air, lingering like an incomplete breath. Your forgiveness, kindness and understanding is also for you.
When you’re subject to a scenario in which someone or something else has caused you harm, navigating the responsibility you may feel for your role in the conflict and granting self-forgiveness can feel tricky or overwhelming. But when you are the one in need of forgiveness, where do you begin?
What does it mean to forgive yourself?
As forgiveness research has developed, the subfield of self-forgiveness has taken on its own definitions and space. Self-forgiveness is defined as a “restoration of self respect” (Hall & Fincham, 2005) but it’s not a single step. Forgiving yourself happens in distinct stages:
- Uncovering. Recognizing a shortcoming may include a strong series of emotional reactions like guilt, anger, denial, blame or shame. Acknowledging a problem is the first step in solving it, and that’s what happens in this first stage.
- Decision. When you decide to move past those negative emotions, you’ve reached the stage that allows space for changing your behavior, action or approach. This stage is the turning point in the process of forgiveness.
- Work. Actively applying the tools you recognize and gather in the decision-making stage may manifest in many forms, but all of them will involve putting in the work of having compassion for yourself. Creating acceptance and fostering support is critical in success in the work stage of forgiving yourself.
- Outcome. At this final stage, you see the fruits of your labor. You have moved through the hard processes of self-forgiveness and can apply them to a new outlook and the journey that follows whatever harm you needed to forgive.
These stages occur in a distinctly phased pattern that requires you to move through a curve of emotions, realization and effort before you can truly reach the enlightened spaces of forgiveness.
How do I do that?
In order to navigate these stages, there are a few critical truths that will help prepare you for navigating the hard, important work you must do. Realizing that this work isn’t optional, and that you have been denying yourself the power of your own forgiveness, is a powerful mantra with which to begin. Try repeating, from the very first moment of this journey, something that helps you to feel both accountable and worthy of your time and attention.
A mantra, like, “I am flawed and still valuable” or “I can be accountable and compassionate to myself” may remind you of the duality you must impress into the experience of forgiving yourself for the pain you’ve caused in your world. In recovery, feelings of self-worth can be hard to come by, while blame is an old friend. Reject that binary and instead insist that worth be clipped to the heels of blame. In order to feel self-blame, you must also feel self-worth. You are worthy of being forgiven. You are worthy of boundaries. You are worthy of accountability.
Those things may hurt in the gravity of applying them. Accepting accountability and enforcing boundaries feels like punishment, but in reality, it’s a reminder that you deserve to heal through the pain you’ve caused with compassion- even if you caused it to yourself.
Exhale empathy, but not compassion
To forgive yourself, you will need to remove your extreme empathy for your actions, as it may lead to defensiveness. While it may seem counterintuitive, not allowing yourself to lean too heavily into empathy for the way you’ve harmed yourself will allow you to create more helpful boundaries around the ways you move forward. While it’s true that you were once operating the best way you knew how, you now know better, and you should expect more from yourself moving forward.
Let go of that empathy so that it cannot become a defense dressed up in fancy clothes. Choose accountability and compassion instead. Show yourself that you deserve softness, even amid a hard experience. Acknowledge the wrong you’ve done without trying to justify it and make a clear plan for the ways you can do things more gently in the future.
Apologize to yourself
And mean it. A genuine apology without an excuse or explanation (even if you know them) can go so far in soothing the pain you cause yourself no matter the magnitude of the hurt.
Forgiving yourself is a journey, but if you wish to move forward in your life, it isn’t an optional one. Both shaming yourself and avoiding accountability are power-players for your addiction, and moving forward with recovery will flourish under the compassionate guide of healing. Your self-forgiveness is a powerful tool you are worthy and capable of wielding to keep recovery moving forward. As you move through the stages of recognizing hurts and responding in new ways, let us support you.