You can’t forgive without loving. And I do not mean sentimentality. I do not mean mush.
I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’
— MAYA ANGELOU
In general, as a culture, we have become so good at striving for success and recognition, and at the same time so bad at dealing with missteps and mistakes, especially our own. We understand the concept that “everyone makes mistakes” and that theoretically, “it is not about the fact that we made a mistake, but how we recover from it.” However, this is an incredibly difficult belief to hold on to when facing our own shortcomings or failures.
Many people struggle with self-condemnation that stems from feeling as though they’ve either done something “wrong” and have guilt related to how they acted, or because they feel that they themselves are “wrong” or defective in some way which leads to a sense of shame. For those who develop a problematic relationship with alcohol or other substances, these experiences of guilt and shame are universal.
The ability to find forgiveness for self is in so many ways the key to the healing process. In life, as with the process of recovery, true freedom comes once you find it within yourself to let go— to offer yourself the cleansing relief that comes with moving on and like the quote above, having the courage to love yourself enough to be finished with it.
The Road to Self-Forgiveness
Learning how to accept ownership over mistakes, let go, move on, and forgive yourself is important for mental health and well-being, although often it is much easier said than done. Self-forgiveness requires empathy, compassion, kindness, and understanding, and ultimately, requires you to make the choice to be honest with yourself throughout the process.
1. Setting Aside Time to Process
One of the biggest traps that we fall into as humans is believing that if we are not actively thinking about something that it is not a problem for us. Rather than dealing with our emotions, we tend to disregard them, “stuff them down”, or avoid them entirely.
When you are trying to create a new life for yourself free from the influence of substances, nothing can quite stunt your progress as this tendency. We need time to sit with ourselves and to acknowledge and process all the emotions that arise in us. Allow yourself permission to recognize and accept the feelings that are triggered in you as you think about where your life has taken you so far.
2. Acknowledging What Happened
Facing the realities of what you have done in the past or what has happened is an important step towards self-forgiveness. It is often our initial temptation to make excuses or to try to rationalize or justify our actions in order to make them seem acceptable.
However, by taking responsibility and owning up to the fact that you have engaged in actions that have hurt others, you can begin to free yourself – and them – from some of the burdens. It is also helpful to adopt the narrative that “I did the best I could with the tools and knowledge I had at the time”. In this way, we can balance the forces of accountability and compassion and develop a realistic perspective of what happened.
3. Considering What You Have Learned From the Experience
It can be a helpful exercise to consider each mistake of the past as a learning experience that helps you to discover more about the person you want to be in the future. This is the primary function of guilt as an emotion.
When we feel guilty, this is a message from our subconscious mind letting us know that our actions are not in line with our beliefs and ultimately helps us to make a different choice in the future. Progress looks like moving away from shame-based beliefs about the self:
- “I am a bad person” and moving towards a more hopeful narrative.
- “I made a bad choice, but I have the power to make better choices in the future.”
- Or even just “I’ve experienced an incredibly painful lesson in who I don’t want to be.”
4. Having a Conversation With Your Inner Critic
Moving towards self-forgiveness means developing an active practice of self-compassion. In addition to learning to be kind to ourselves, this means taking a closer look at the internal dialogues that we allow to take place in our minds. An actionable step you can take is to write out a conversation between you and your inner critic as a way to recognize the thoughts that are getting in the way of forgiveness. This can help you identify thought patterns that are sabotaging your ability to forgive yourself.
You may also need to examine the expectations and standards you hold for yourself. The expert on self-compassion, Kristin Neff recommends considering your situation as if your best friend were the one in crisis. What would you say? How would you comfort them? Ultimately, how is that conversation compared to the one you had earlier with your inner critic? Why is it so difficult to extend the same message of love and forgiveness to ourselves?
5. Making a Plan for Moving Forward
Making amends is an important part of forgiveness, even when the person you are forgiving is yourself. The best way to move past your guilt is to take action to make up for your mistakes. While we may never “earn” forgiveness or fully make up for it, apologizing or even being willing to have the conversation with others about their experience is an important step. This aspect of self-forgiveness is about responding to what happened in a way that you can be proud of, no matter whether others ultimately accept your apology.
6. Quit Playing the Tape
While in many ways, it is human nature to spend time and energy replaying our mistakes, at some point, it becomes no longer healthy for us to continue in that way. Falling into the trap of rumination, self-hatred, or even pity can be incredibly damaging to your recovery process.
When you catch yourself playing the “I’m broken” or “I’m a horrible human” tape, stop yourself and focus on one positive action step. Interrupting the thought pattern can help you replace the negative experience and even reduce stress and anxiety.
7. Focusing on Today and the Hope of Tomorrow
Self-forgiveness is incredibly important to the healing process as it allows you to let go of the anger, guilt, shame, sadness you may be holding on to and move on. Working through this process gives you a plan for the future, rather than allowing self-defeating thoughts to continue plaguing you.
As you learn to identify what you are feeling, tame your inner critic, and work towards a different outcome, you will begin to see how freeing forgiveness can be. The power of forgiveness is in being able to offer yourself that gift, to accept it, and to step into the hope that tomorrow will be different.
Healing at Villa Kali Ma
When it comes to processing through your past, this is the work of therapy—to learn to offer yourself forgiveness, to sit with your pain and emotion, and move through it. At Villa Kali Ma, we know the importance of the relationship you develop with yourself on the recovery journey, as well as the challenges of meeting your inner critic face-to-face.
In addition to working with you through the process of self-forgiveness, we teach you the skills of mindfulness, of how to stay present in your experience, and how to offer yourself self-compassion along the way. If you or an important woman in your life is struggling with addiction to alcohol or other substances, contact us today to learn more about our program and how we can help!