When I was young, I learned about forgiveness. My teachers and parents explained that when someone wrongs me in some way, it’s up to me to say, “I forgive you.” In fact, adults would typically place the person in front of me, ask them to say, “Sorry,” and wait for that very response. Often the reverse was true too, with me asking for forgiveness from another kid. For me, the conversation stopped there for many years. And the processes at play still feels muddled and complicated. Many people come to therapy having done some wrong, to themselves or to a loved one. This brings up a foundational question: How do we go about forgiving ourselves?
So many of us have regrets, wishing we responded or acted in a different way, and stuck with the painful reality that we cannot go back and change it. What are some steps to take in order to forgive ourselves? While there may be no recipe, these five steps may help begin the healing process. The first and often hardest step is to acknowledge the truth. Our memories often work to protect us, and so recognizing how pride, willfulness, or denial has gotten in the way of us processing this piece of our history can be instrumental in gaining understanding. Once we acknowledge what has happened, it frees us up to not fight it anymore.
The next step is to accept what I cannot change. This is a popular saying in many different contexts, and applies to forgiveness as a way to let go of the need to change, fix, or solve something that we have absolutely no control over. We often apologize to others as a selfish act, implying and imploring forgive me so that I feel less guilty. When I accept that what’s done is done, it frees me up to respond in a way that aligns with my values. Valued-directed behavior may be treating myself with respect, curiosity, and humor. When we look back on those regrets, can we bring our values to that experience? What would it be like to be strong enough to treat ourselves the way we might treat others in a similar position? Which brings the next step: make room for other perspectives. Our brains are often excellent at hyperbole: This is unforgivable… You don’t deserve forgiveness… There is no excuse… Instead of taking those thoughts as facts, we can open ourselves up to potential other perspectives. If a loved one came to me with this deep, painful regret, how would I respond? We are often much kinder to the people we care about than we are toward ourselves. What would it be like to take a perspective of kindness instead? It may be that it would be a way to treat ourselves with dignity. Often the way to find self-love is to treat ourselves with love and compassion in moments of shame and guilt. You are human, you are fallible — this does not make you irredeemable. In fact, it weaves you more deeply into the fabric of connecting with others, of knowing yourself, of finding meaning.
The final step to forgiving myself is to understand that I can only forgive in the here and now. This is true for forgiving others and is certainly true for forgiving ourselves. We may take all the steps necessary and feel more peaceful with regrets and shame we’ve been carrying. And then the next week, it may be back. Bringing myself into the here-and-now, and allowing for forgiveness now may be far more manageable (and meaningful) than attempting to forgive myself forever. What I have is now, and I’ll let that be enough.
If you’ve found yourself struggling with guilt, regret, or shame about the past, it may be useful to try counseling. Contact Symmetry Counseling at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment with one of our very skilled therapists today!