Forgiveness is a loaded word, and can even be triggering, especially as forgiveness has been weaponized against survivors of abuse. Many religions discuss the importance of forgiveness. They discuss it as if it’s a must in order to be accepted into heaven or to be right with a higher power. For others to forgive someone who has hurt them feels like an erasure of the effects of the harm. Of the lasting impacts of being harmed by the other, and therefore forgiveness is out of the question. But in general when we think about forgiveness it’s all about letting go. Letting go of the past, the pain, the hurt, and even (parts) of our story which make us who we are. This makes forgiveness even more of a challenge.
The truth is forgiveness can be hard. Not just forgiving others who have harmed us but also forgiving ourselves. Forgiving others doesn’t mean that we have to have a relationship with them nor does it mean ignoring the impact that their harm has on us. In fact sharing with another how they have harmed you can be a step towards healing for some. Not everyone feels the need or has to directly confront the person who has harmed them, but even if one can do the confrontation as a visualization exercise with the support of another therapist) can be just as powerful. Neuroscience has shown that our brains can’t tell the difference between something that is “real” vs something that is “imagined” if sufficient energy and emotion is behind it. Again it’s not a requirement for healing but it can be cathartic.
In forgiving ourselves it can be equally as hard as forgiving others. Often time we do things that have gone against our best interests and made poor decisions that still impact us, which fill us with shame and regret. So we would rather not look directly into those things for fear of what we might find in depths of our despair. But in avoiding looking at it, we cannot take away lessons or stop pattens, that no longer serve us.
Why It’s Hard to Look At Our Past and Consider Forgiving Ourselves
Forgiving ourselves means that we forgive ourself for past choices that we made understanding that we did the best we could with the information that we had at the time. There is often pain, sadness, shame, regret, and guilt attached to our past. We live in regret when we focus on our pasts and sometimes the pain can be so overwhelming that we try to avoid it. In avoiding it we cannot learn lessons, so we don’t make those same mistakes again. Then we wonder why we repeat patterns or continue to be placed in situations that do us a disservice.
Many common patterns for people fall in the realm of relationships, especially romantic partners. For many of us we have a (long) history of dating people who in hindsight we describe as toxic. They may have been physically or emotionally abusive. These past partners might have used their own trauma as a weapon, in that they told us about their own terrible childhoods as a way to disarm us when we call them out for their harmful behavior.
When we stay with partners like this for any length of time, especially if they end up breaking up with us in the end because if our “behavior”, then we hyper focus on “why didn’t I leave? Why did I put up with it?” In our shame we might squash these thoughts and put the blame solely on them but more often than not we turn it around and question our own worthiness. This then becomes a siren song of negative thoughts about self worth and as we enter the next relationship we find that this partner has similar traits as the other and we behave in similar manner. We hate ourselves for it and yet find ourselves struggling to break the cycle.
Why We Should Forgive Ourselves?
The biggest reason to forgive yourself is so that you can make different decisions with the new information that you have. Most of us go on and on about how we want to change and grow. This is one way to help in the self growth process. In order to change and make better choices, we do have to look at our past and forgive ourselves for the choices we made.
When we take the time to review our past actions, even if it’s painful, we have the opportunity to learn a lesson. From a broken heart we can learn what we want in a partner based on what was missing in the previous one. In a crushing dream we can learn the steps we can get more clarity about what we really want, what truly resonates with us, and then take the best steps based on what we learned. Exploring what went wrong and what went right.
10 Steps to Forgive Yourself So You Can Learn A Lesson and Apply To A Better Life For You
The thought of forgiving yourself might sound scary or painful. After all it’s looking at a past where maybe you weren’t your best self or you made mistake after mistake which just compounded the pain of the time. But now that you are out it’s a good time tom take a look and see what inside is unresolved so you can move forward. Below are 10 steps to get you going.
1. Take it slow and set the atmosphere. Before doing any in depth work I always recommend that you get your body in a settled place. It’s ok if you have some feelings of anger or anxiety but it should be tolerable. If you feel on the verge of overwhelm or you are overwhelmed all ready, then do what you need to settle the body and get back in your window of tolerance.
2. Give yourself time. You don’t want to rush this process so make sure you have at least 30 minutes that way if/when you get triggered in any way you can take the time you need to (re)settle your body.
3. Check in with your body and note places that are calling your attention and then shift attention to a part that feels solid or pleasant. Go between these two places just to get a rhythm and notice what happens inside.
4. Conjure a memory. When you feel ready, and really ask yourself if you’re ready and how you know you’re ready, dive into your past. What comes up? What’s at the forefront of your mind? Is it a regret about a past relationship? What about taking a risk at work that didn’t work out? Just focus on one thing and notice the thoughts and feelings that come up. What messages are you telling yourself?
5. Stay connected to your body and go back to step 3 and shift between the pleasant solid part of you and the part that is triggered. You can also focus on something in your outside environment if you go numb or can’t find anything internally.
6. Positive self talk. One phrase I use for myself and clients have shared also works for them is the reminder statement of “I did the best that I could at the time. I didn’t know anything different and I acted with what I knew at the time”. This can help lessen the intensity of the emotions that come from the memory.
7. Invite and make space for all emotions and thoughts. This can be really overwhelming and it can be easy to shut things down and run away. If you need to come back to it another day when you have more resources then that is good too. Listen to your body and move slow, otherwise you risk retraumatizing yourself. If everything feels tolerable then continue. All emotions and thoughts are welcome. You want to be curious about them-try not to hold on to any at one time but rather let them come through, feel them, and release them.
8. Letting go. This might not happen all at once. You might have to revisit the memory or past experiences but the hope is that each time you tap in the intensity decreases and you feel a sense of relief. The relief may feel like a wash of energy through your body and you might find your arms stretch out in response which can symbolize letting go.
9. Connect. Contact a support person, friend, family member, therapist, whomever you trust and share this experience. Allow them to bear witness to another part of you and also hold space for you so you don’t feel alone. Be selective with who you speak to though. Not everyone can hold space for others and even for those who are good at it sometimes their own cups are running on empty so they aren’t as available.
10. Revisit. You can revist this experience after and check in with how it feels for you. When you think about that person or a choice you made are you still filled with shame? Regret? Or does it feel like another part of your story with little to know emotional weight behind it? How does that feel for you?
Forgiveness can sound like something scary or overwhelming. You may dismiss the idea of forgiveness especially as it pertains to people who have harmed you because of the pain they caused but sometimes we must forgive ourselves. Forgive ourselves for the pain that we have inflicted upon ourselves for our decisions in the past and not addressing them so they become patterns in our present and potentially our future experiences. By forgiving ourselves we can process and heal from our mistakes. We can take lessons away and apply them to improving our present and future. So take the time to explore forgiving yourself using the 10 steps above.
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