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Forgiving Ourselves

September 21, 2015

Several years ago one of my brothers asked for my forgiveness for something that had happened long ago in our childhood.  When he was a boy, he thought it would be fun to use crutches, but he didn’t want to break his leg in order to get access to crutches.  So he wished that I would break my leg so that I would need crutches and then he would be able to play with them sometimes.  Shortly after wishing this, I was hit by a car and broke my leg, and after getting out of the hospital I was on crutches for a couple of months.  My brother felt terrible guilt.  He blamed himself for callously wishing I would have an accident.  He carried that guilt for decades.  Finally, he told him about his selfish boyhood wish–which had tragically come true.  I freely forgave him.  He was just being a boy.  In fact, I felt badly that he had been blaming himself all of these years.

We all carry guilt for things we did–or thought we did–in the past.  Sometimes the things that we did were truly harmful; sometimes we did little harm except to ourselves.  Sometimes we acted with selfish intent; sometimes we acted in pure ignorance or innocence–but harm or hurt feelings resulted anyway.  Regardless of how big or small the offense, or how culpable we actually were, we often can’t shake the feelings of regret and pain, and the anger we aim at ourselves.

To experience relief and healing (within ourselves as well as with others), we need forgiveness.  How does this happen?  To receive forgiveness from those we offended, we need to confess to them what we did, express our genuine regret, take full responsibility for our behavior, offer to make amends, make a commitment to new behavior, and ask for forgiveness.  The offended party may or may not forgive us–it depends on the depth of the wound, how much they trust us, as well as other factors.  We cannot control other people’s response.

But even if the offended party forgives us, or the “offended” party wasn’t offended, we may still carry around guilt.  Why?  Because we have not forgiven ourselves.  Forgiving ourselves is often a longer and more difficult process than receiving forgiveness from others.

Why do we sometimes find it so hard to forgive ourselves?  Because we know ourselves too well.  We know things about us that no one else knows, and so we are less inclined to let ourselves off the hook.  God knows everything about us too, and we may confess to God and ask God for forgiveness, and we may believe that God has indeed forgiven us–but that doesn’t mean we have forgiven ourselves!  We may be a harsher judge than God.  We may trust in God’s mercy, but not our own.  And so we continue to feel guilty and kick ourselves with painful memories.

So how can we forgive ourselves?  Over the years I have tried various approaches.  I have gone to a priest and confessed everything I could possibly think of.  I have listed every painful memory and bit of self-blame on a sheet of paper and burned it, releasing it to God.  I have used “reverse psychology”:  embracing my mistakes and selfishness and foolishness as an essential part of who I am.  All of these have been helpful.  But recently I have been doing something else that has been the most helpful yet:  a true dialogue with myself.

Whenever a memory pops into my head that causes me self-recrimination, I take a moment to first analyze it.  Is this a feeling of shame (loss of face, deep embarrassment, loss of value in my own eyes or the eyes of others), or is this a feeling of guilt (regret at having caused harm or offense to another or having violated one’s own moral code)?  If it’s shame, then I need to love myself.  If it’s guilt, then I need to forgive myself.

If the feeling is a feeling of guilt, then I talk to myself–out loud, addressing myself.  I say, “Ryan, are you willing to forgive me for this?”  That other side of me then considers this; I consider whether I have made proper confession and amends to those involved; I consider whether I’m seeking escape or accountability; I consider the pain I have been carrying.  That other side of me then decides whether it is truly ready to let go, to free me from all future recrimination.  If so, then that other side says out loud, “Yes, Ryan, I forgive you.”  And then I say, with genuine gratitude, “Thank you.”

I don’t always forgive myself.  Sometimes I say to myself, “I’m not quite ready yet to forgive you; I’m not convinced yet that you’ve actually learned what you were supposed to have learned from this.”  And that’s ok.  I’m being honest with myself.  It won’t work if I’m not being utterly honest with myself.  It doesn’t matter whether I think I’m being too hard on myself; I can only forgive what I am truly ready to forgive.  But that dialogue gets it out into the open.  I’m really talking about it and talking it out.  More often than not, I am indeed ready to forgive.  And once I have verbally done that, I do actually experience relief, and that painful memory rarely comes back to haunt me.

Our inner conscience is formed by many things.  Some of us have a very demanding conscience, and some of us less so.  But at least one of the influences on our conscience is our image of God.  So the more we can contemplate the mercy of God, I think the greater will become our capacity to have mercy on ourselves.  My God demands integrity, and so I demand integrity within myself.  But my God also pities humanity–valuing all of us and wanting to rescue us and give us second chances even though we are often ignorant and selfish.  And so, I have also learned to give myself pity.

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