How to Forgive Yourself Philippians 3:12-16
How do you forgive yourself? This is a key question in our Pathways Sermon Series. Forgiveness is a central tenant of our faith. Scripture says as far as the east is from the west, so far does God remove our transgressions from us. In other words, God give us a clean slate, like shaking one of those old Etch-a-sketches. There is nothing we can do that God cannot forgive, so that means we can break the chains of shame that can bind us to misery.
Jesus calls us to extend the forgiveness we receive from God to other people. The biblical concept of forgiveness is not about saying, “O, that’s okay, don’t worry about it.” Instead, it recognizes wrong yet decides not to retaliate and do something terrible to them when they do something terrible to us. In the Lord’s Prayer, he teaches us to pray, “Forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
The hardest person to forgive is yourself.
Today, I want to talk about how to forgive the person that you might find it hardest to forgive—yourself. A clergy friend told me about a woman with a huge moral failure 20 years previously. She told her pastor that she asked God for forgiveness multiple times daily. The pastor said, “God forgave you the first time you asked. You don’t need to keep asking. God has no interest in you feeling ashamed and groveling like a worm. I suspect it is you who isn’t forgiving yourself.”
We have all done things we regret, something we did that we shouldn’t have, things we said we shouldn’t have. Things we didn’t do or didn’t say. Perhaps you look back and say, “I can’t believe I did that!” There are some things we have a hard time letting go of. I wonder if there is something in your past that still makes you cringe to think about it. What is it that comes to mind right now?
Full disclosure about this sermon: the truth is that I struggle with self-forgiveness. I can forgive anyone for just about anything, but I’m not so compassionate with myself. But to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must learn to forgive ourselves. So, this sermon, like most, is aimed at me. I thought I’d share what I learned over the years that helped, including material from Everett Worthington and his team at the University of Virginia. They developed a clinically proven process for those who struggle with self-forgiveness. A two-week manual that is very helpful.
Don’t make it too easy.
Before we dig in, let’s acknowledge that self-forgiveness that is too easy, that does not account for the harm incurred by others (or simply letting yourself off the hook) is limited and not very responsible if it ignores the damage you’ve done. For example, how might you feel if someone who harmed you deeply simply self-forgave without considering your pain? Some people don’t ever see themselves as ever doing anything wrong. Someone else is always to blame. They are never accountable, but it means they never reflect and learn from their mistakes–bound to hurt themselves and others—again.
Yet there are others who have done something they can’t let go. It evokes a sense of what John Bradshaw calls “toxic shame” in his book, “Healing the Shame that Binds You.” It’s where you beat yourself up and see yourself as a fundamentally flawed and awful person. He distinguishes between guilt and shame. Guilt or remorse is that feeling that I have done something wrong. “That was a terrible action.” Shame is when we internalize that and conclude that we are bad or flawed at the core. “I am a terrible person.” As Brene Brown says,
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Toxic shame leads to depression, negative self-images, auto-immune disorders, and becoming overly critical of others and yourself. Shamed people tend to shame other people. We only have so much psychic energy. When bound by shame, we waste resources we could use more positively elsewhere.
Seven tools for your self-forgiveness toolbox
So, how do we find that sweet spot where we can acknowledge our guilt without letting ourselves off the hook too easily or let it morph into toxic shame?
Turn to your higher power.
I was surprised that the first step in Worthington’s system is to connect with your higher power, (however you might conceive of that) to get to a place where you feel spiritually grounded or at peace. In our faith, we can turn to the promises of forgiveness and realize take the first step of receiving the forgiveness God offers us.
One of the things that helps me with self-forgiveness is remembering Jesus’ disciple, Peter who failed Jesus and let him down. He fled when the guards came to arrest Jesus and then, despite all his promises, he denied he even knew Jesus. If Peter had let his worst moment define him, he would never have achieved all the great things he did. Although Peter had failed miserably, Jesus trusted him to be a leader of the church. That’s an important distinction. We can’t change the past, but we can let it fuel us into trying to do better and live into the future God calls us to.
I think about the distinction between Judas and Peter. They both failed. One refused to believe there could be a positive future after failure, and the other became the “rock” of the early church. God does not define us by our failures, but as the beloved who are called to a positive future. Remembering who we are is the first step. And remember, God isn’t interested in having you feeling insignificant, and shrinking back in shame. God has purposes for you, good things to bring to the world through you but you can block all that by refusing to forgive yourself and move on as a better person.
Simplify your self-forgiveness process.
Make one incident at a time. Make an honest account of it as if it were an outsider observing the event. Sometimes, you have to ask if you are beating yourself up for something that wasn’t really your fault. Do you ever feel guilty for something outside your control, a need to be perfect, or a desire for social approval? For those who have learned patterns of co-dependency, there is a temptation to take more of the blame than is justified because of someone else’s decisions. You are not at fault for things people did to you.
I heard a guy talk about his path to self-forgiveness who had been beating himself up because of some things he said before his best friend suddenly cut him off and took his own life. He spent years perseverating on it, feeling that had he acted differently, the outcome would have changed. His path to self-forgiveness took a positive turn when he quit beating himself up, taking on all the responsibility for something that was not his fault.
In cases where you are at fault, do what you can to repair the damage of the fallout of the wrongdoing. When we are caught up in the moment of misconduct, we often are so self-absorbed we are not cognizant of the damage that it can do to someone else. We fool ourselves into thinking no one will find out or trick ourselves into some justification or rationalization.
So, make a full accounting. Where appropriate make confessions/apologies to people affected by your actions. There are lots of good resources online on how to make an effective, heart-felt apology and how to consider making amends. A good apology is different than the fake public apologies we see when some high-profile person issues a statement that really says, “I’m sorry I got caught.” Most of the time we have to find ways pay it forward in the future. However, make the repairs you can.
Do a deeper dive into considering what was going on within you at the time.
The hardest self-forgiveness isn’t just the emotional outburst or mistake, Oprah once had a guest who couldn’t let go of the fact that when he got his big shot on Wheel of Fortune, he chose a letter that had already been guessed. No, I’m talking about the stuff that you knew was wrong when you did it, but something in you found a way to justify it or minimize its consequences, and you did it anyway—a moral failure.
Consider what unmet needs were going on, or perhaps addictive thinking. We commit moral failures when there is some unmet basic need inside of us. We do well to examine it and understand, not excuse, what led us to that behavior in the past. Once aware of it, create the disciplines and changes to keep from that kind of thinking in the future.
Consider the situation from another perspective.
Is it something you could forgive the person you admire most if they had done the same thing under similar circumstances? If you can forgive them, it’s time to forgive yourself. Hanging on to unforgiveness can be a ready-made excuse for many things. I don’t have to try because I’m no good. I shouldn’t put myself out there and connect deeply with others because I’m not a trustworthy person. We tend to see only the negative when it gives us an excuse to shrink back and not invest ourselves in a whole and meaningful life. It is a fear response, not a faith response. You are blessed. You are complete. You are chosen. You are accepted. No more shame. No more shame. Shame off you. Shame off you.
In our scripture passage, we are told to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead—press on towards the heavenly call.
Learn to stop the flow of negative thoughts is like trying to stop a boulder rolling down a mountain. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be. Learn to intervene early by diverting your thinking to something more positive.
Decide to start a process of self-forgiveness.
The first thing is to declare that you’re going to quit retaliating against yourself by wallowing in guilt. Think of what would improve if you let go of guilt and shame. Remember that you aren’t doing any good by beating yourself up and feeling horrible for the rest of your life. How you might reduce ruminations and move to more constructive thoughts.
Also, ask to what degree you have reasonable expectations. Are you too hard on yourself, perfectionistic, always dooming yourself to failure? You know you are a human being when you are being human—making mistakes, then learning from them and improving.
Ritualize your progress.
Create a way to privately celebrate when you make progress. Move on to other events and learn to go through the process to prevent getting stuck. Make it something you are doing to become a better person, the kind of person you want to be.
The journey to self-forgiveness isn’t easy, but it’s a necessary skill if we’re going to be at our best. We have good role models. Nearly every important biblical figure had to figure it out to achieve what God had in store for them. That means you can, too.