Today’s blog post explores an idea that is certainly not original by any stretch of the imagination but it’s something I believe is very much worth exploring nonetheless. Regardless of what, if any, religious affiliation you associate with (or associated with in the past), we hear a lot of talk about the importance of forgiving others & not holding grudges or allowing ourselves to become bitter toward those who have hurt us. These ideas are of course very important because we cannot have peace in our own minds when we are not at peace with others, at least as much as is possible. As hard as it can be to forgive others, when given some thought I believe most people would agree that oftentimes the hardest person in life to forgive is yourself. Today I would like to explore why that might be and why it’s so important to learn to forgive ourselves no matter how difficult it can be at times.
If you have ever taken any kind of basic psychology course you probably discussed the well-recognized phenomenon in which victims of child, physical, or other types of abuse very often blame themselves for the abuse which they have suffered. At first glance this may seem extraordinary & impossible to believe. But delve a little deeper & one can reason that perhaps it is easier to believe that you made a mistake or somehow provoked the abuser to hurt you than to believe that someone, particularly a family member, romantic partner, or friend (indeed someone who should have been protecting you, not hurting you) actually CHOSE to hurt you & is thus truly a very screwed up individual. Rape victims often are also perfect examples of this phenomenon. Indeed society does a great deal of blaming the victim as well because frankly it is easier to believe that a woman (or man) provoked such a horrible thing to happen than to believe that there are such evil, disgusting people in this world. This of course only serves to perpetuate the cycle of victims blaming themselves & being unable to forgive themselves for something which in reality is not even their fault.
However, we certainly don’t have to be abuse or rape victims (actually, I don’t like that term; let’s say survivors) to struggle with self-forgiveness. How many times a day do most of us berate ourselves for not eating healthily enough, weighing too much, not saving enough money, or countless other things? I’m not saying these aren’t worthy goals, they surely are, but sometimes I think in our haste to berate ourselves for our poor decisions we actually hinder our own progress. Sometimes in our quest for perfection we miss the beauty of life that is right before our very eyes. Indeed, we focus so much on our mistakes that we have no energy left over for actual self-improvement.
One of the greatest lessons I think we all have to learn in life is that there are going to be days when we just don’t like ourselves because we simply aren’t as “perfect” we want to be. For example, as a nurse I know I have had to come to terms with the fact that I am not going to feel 100% compassion for every patient every time. Naturally I want to, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen because I am just as human as everyone else. And I have had to learn to forgive myself for this & to know that as long as it doesn’t prevent me from providing excellent care it’s ok. Learning to forgive myself for not being the perfect “angel of compassion” at all times actually helps me to more quickly recognize my own prejudices & then set them aside & provide the best care possible at all times. For example, when I have a particularly trying patient who is rude & dissatisfied with her care no matter how many times I bend over backwards to try to meet her needs, I have to remind myself that it’s ok to be annoyed with her. It’s ok to mentally roll my eyes at these things. I just have to possess the self-control to not allow these feelings to come across to the patient & to not allow those feelings to so overwhelm me that I become bitter & angry toward that patient or anyone else. I have to see beyond the annoying behaviors to the hurting person inside. Having come to these realizations has actually helped me to have greater satisfaction in my nursing career &, though I have no scientific way of validating it, I truly believe it has made me overall a more effective nurse.
I believe this idea is also very important for parents. Though I am not a parent yet I hope to be one someday, & I know when that day comes there will be times when I look at my children & wonder “What the hell was I thinking?!” And I will have to learn to forgive myself for those thoughts, to remember that every parent feels that way at times. AND IT’S OK. Similarly, in marriage or any serious relationship there are times when you look at your partner & wonder what you are doing with this person. AND THAT’S OK TOO. Being frustrated or upset with your partner or your child doesn’t make you a bad person. It just makes you a PERSON. The important thing is to be able to recognize these thoughts when they occur, handle them as objectively as possible (by that I mean not beating yourself up over them, just recognizing them for what they are: a sign of your own beautiful humanity), & moving on in the knowledge that as long as these thoughts don’t become the overall theme of your life, they’re not a big deal.
Another situation in which I believe we struggle with self-forgiveness is with regret. I feel fortunate to say I truly do not have a lot of regrets in my life, but I do struggle with forgiving myself for those few I do have. However, what I am slowly learning is that self-forgiveness is an absolutely vital step in preventing myself from repeating the same old mistakes.
I guess my point with this post is that I truly believe that we cannot move forward in life without self-forgiveness. As long as we wallow in guilt & self-hate we are stuck in a self-perpetuating negative cycle. Life would be a lot easier if we could just magically forgive ourselves (& others), but that’s just not the way life works. As with almost everything in life, self-forgiveness is a process. It’s an everyday event that requires conscious awareness & effort. I hope that as you’re reading this you don’t think I’m making excuses for bad behavior or encouraging you to not feel guilty for things that you know in your heart are wrong. Of course not. What I am saying is that we cannot truly improve ourselves without self-forgiveness. We hear so much in society about the importance of showing compassion to others & there’s no doubt that this is indeed most vital. But just as vital is showing compassion to yourself. There’s a fine line for sure between being compassionate toward yourself & making excuses for yourself. But the line is there & it’s our job as human beings to stay on the former side of it.
To be perfectly honest this post feels quite like word vomit to me at this point. There’s so much I want to say & the words just aren’t coming to me tonight. Though I have fumbled through the words, I hope the passion I feel for this matter has somehow come through & that at least one person who reads this will be encouraged to begin the process of self-forgiveness & moving toward a brighter tomorrow.
I’d love to hear what you think on this matter. Am I speaking to the wind or does any of this make sense?
Having compassion towards oneself is a quality that can easily be taken for granted. As not only a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, by a family member, adolescent sexual abuse by a church leader, and frequent sexual assaults as a young teenager by a boyfriend, but a person with human-like tendencies, I find it very easy to be super compassionate (to the point of almost exonerating everyone from almost any crime), yet nearly impossible to forgive myself for a “misdeed” 1/1000 the size of someone else’s. I guess that’s part of why I’m in therapy.
I went to a Catholic school growing up and we were always taught to forgive others, have compassion towards all, and to do for others first. While all these things are good and noble, when taken to the extreme, as I have a tendency to do, they lead to hugely distorted thinking on the forgiver/compassionate/putting-self-last person. I haven’t taken care of myself in the past; the world still has problems, why should I stop and rest just because I’m getting sick– it’s not terminal!
I can intellectually tell you that I did nothing wrong to provoke my past abuse, but I have yet to truly FEEL innocent.
I can make excuses for my students and their parents miles long; but the fact that I didn’t have my progress reports done in time? Unforgivable. It doesn’t matter that I was having horrible flashbacks and was doing all I could not to hurt myself– those reports should have been finished.
This is a skill I’m working on. Last week I took cold medicine and asked my therapist if I should applaud myself for that. He said I should because that was a step for me. That kind of put me in my place. It’s so much easier to help others than it is ourselves that sometimes we lose ourselves in the process.
I like the Ghandi quote, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” but I think there is a line where you can really lose yourself [whilst in the service of others].
This is a really long comment, I apologize.
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No reason to apologize! Thank you for sharing. I am so sorry you experienced so much abuse, especially at the hands of people who should have been protecting you from such horrible things. I am glad you have found a way to heal some of the wounds. It took me 3 tries to find a therapist I really click with but I’m so glad I finally did b/c she has helped me so much in this regard (self-forgiveness).