The road to self-forgiveness
By Diane E. Lykes, LCSW
There is something ironic about having your baggage rejected at the airport because it’s too heavy. Is there a simple, but hidden lesson in this for all of us? Are we carrying too much baggage and is it possible to leave something behind and still enjoy our journey?
Obviously, by “baggage” I am not referring to buying one too many outfits for your trip. I am referring to the self-blame, self-criticism and guilt that so many people carry with them every single day. It is the perfectionist who makes one mistake and finds him or herself in a pattern of self-condemnation.
The word “self-forgiveness” carries some negative baggage of its’ own. Some say that it’s a politically correct word for avoiding personal responsibility for one’s actions. This could not be further from the truth. The practice of self-forgiveness allows us to engage in honest, respectful and meaningful relationships with all those we choose to be around.
Self-forgiveness does not mean forgetting what happened. It does mean taking responsibility for your actions, especially if you have hurt someone. Alcoholics Anonymous calls this making amends. AA’s philosophy on self-forgiveness provides a valuable framework that we can all benefit from.
Making amends is different from an apology. It’s not just saying, “I am sorry”, but focuses on making restitution for what you have broken or damaged. Oftentimes, what has been broken is trust and this can be more difficult to restore.
In our counseling practice, we often see people who are in the process of making amends for the hurt they have caused the people they love. One woman in particular stands out for her brave efforts to make amends and restore her relationships with her family. Natalie is a recovering alcoholic who admitted to driving under the influence of alcohol even with her young daughters in the car. After being charged, she was required to take a breathalyzer before driving with her daughters to ensure that she was not intoxicated.
Sadly, it was her 7 and 8-year old daughters who gave her the breathalyzer, reporting the results to their father before he allowed them to drive with Natalie. Obviously, this was very painful for them.
How we choose to address our mistakes can be more important then the mistake itself.
After getting sober, Natalie chose to make amends by joining a group called “Friends of Recovery” and regularly speaks to hundreds of people about her addiction, her behavior and the pain she caused her family. Her daughters have spoken to Victims Impact groups of more than 300 people who all have been charged with Driving While Intoxicated. Their hope is to prevent others from going down this road by understanding the impact this has on the entire family.
When we look at how this family dealt with this traumatic life event, we can learn a great deal about courage, faith in each other and self-forgiveness. How many people might they help in their lifetimes…maybe they have even saved a life.
Frozen in time
Therapists see many people whose minds are filled with regret, shame and guilt. They are emotionally stuck and have difficulty enjoying their lives. They are guilty even when they are happy: “I don’t deserve to be happy after all that I have done…”
While it’s important for all of us to understand the past and learn from it, we need to move forward and live in our present life. Psychologist and relationship guru, Dr. Robin Smith, offers this advice: “While you may still be upset with some of the choices you have made in the past, you can decide that today is a new day and you’re not going to use any more of your energy, not one more moment of your life, living with regret”.
When you are frozen in time and your heart is holding onto past wounds, you leave little room for those who love you today. You can’t love someone fully while you are still living in the past. Later, this may become one more regret that you add to your list.
On being human
“To err is Human to Forgive Devine” – Alexander Pope
We are all human, we are all flawed and we have all made mistakes. This is part of our journey and it is the way we grow emotionally and spiritually.
If you want to work on self-forgiveness, first you will need to check in with yourself. Are you too hard on yourself in general? Have you found that you ruminate about past mistakes finding it difficult to let things go? Would others describe you as a perfectionist? If you have answered yes to any of these questions, you will likely struggle more with forgiving yourself and others too.
To ease up on yourself (and others) try looking at the “intentionality” behind your behavior. Often times we never intend to cause any harm, but unfortunately we do. When we are not intentionally hurting others, we need to allow ourselves the compassion to forgive our humanness.
For most of us, it is easier to have compassion for others than for ourselves. Practicing self-forgiveness, however, is essential for our happiness and well-being. It reduces stress-related illnesses and improves self-esteem. In addition, you will enjoy your relationships with others more fully when you learn to forgive yourself.
So, consider taking a trip someday with only a carry-on. You will find that your journey is much more enjoyable.
Diane Lykes is a Principal of Synergy Counseling Associates in Albany where she specializes in individual and couples counseling, educational training and clinical consultation. Synergy is a unique counseling practice providing compassionate, solution-oriented treatment for adults, children, adolescents and families. She can be reached at 466.3100 or firstname.lastname@example.org