Self-forgiveness is entwined with sticky topics for survivors of abuse and trauma: forgiving others, acceptance, faith, and trust. To allow self-forgiveness, we gently question our layers of reflexive self-judgment.
One more task
Too often, people recommend forgiving others to sidestep appropriate rage and protect abusers from natural consequences of their behavior. “He’s being nice now,” they say, or, “She never bothers me.” Forgiveness becomes a cruel yardstick for healing, one more task before survivors can feel good enough.
In contrast with the positive spin on forgiving others, self-forgiveness is sometimes framed as “letting yourself off the hook,” as if self-judgment were the only way to improve. You can resolve to change your behavior and forgive yourself at the same time. Self-forgiveness opens the door to change by releasing resistance and deepening your connection with yourself. Can you allow yourself to be imperfect and trust that you are doing your best?
Forgiveness for vulnerability
In some cases, self-forgiveness decreases forgiveness for others. In our efforts to protect and forgive abusers, we blame ourselves for the abuse. When we can forgive ourselves for being vulnerable, trusting, or simply finding ourselves in the vicinity of an abuser, we may feel less forgiving of the person choosing abusive behavior, at least for a while.
In other cases, self-forgiveness works in tandem with forgiveness for others. We are often most judgmental of qualities we cannot acknowledge in ourselves. When we can view our behavior with kindness, we can extend that kindness to others as well.
When we draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable people, we worry about staying on the correct side of the line. When we soften that line for others, we can relax that vigilance for ourselves.
Boundaries take priority
Some people define forgiveness as, “Let’s pretend it never happened.” Forgiveness does not eliminate grief, pain, and intolerance for abusive behavior. Boundaries take first priority, and it can be easier to forgive from a safe distance.
Forgiveness makes room for the way things are. Forgiveness is giving up all hope of having had a different past.* In addition, self-forgiveness is giving up all hope of being a different person.
Forgiveness is private and internal. It is a boundary violation to pressure anyone to forgive, including yourself. The shortest path to forgiveness is to give yourself ample room to experience all your unforgiving emotions.
In its own time
Forgiveness happens in its own time, like a tense muscle letting go when all the reasons for tension have been resolved. Muscle tension serves many purposes:
- Stabilize an injury
- Hold back emotions
- Tolerate pain
- Brace for impact
- Get through an emergency
We can order muscles to relax, but it rarely works for long. When we resolve any present-day issues and connect with muscles to let them know that the emergency is over, they relax. The emotional tension of anger and old grudges relaxes into forgiveness in response to apologies, amends, and improved behavior in the present, as well as time to grieve.
How do you respond to the following ideas for self-forgiveness? Do you tighten up in refusal? Do you take a breath of relief? Do you hold still as you take in new possibilities?
Difference and sameness
You could forgive yourself for being the only strong, whole person in a family scarred by abuse and dysfunction. You could forgive yourself for being the only person falling apart in a family that appears serenely functional. You could forgive yourself for following in your family’s footsteps.
Growth and change
You could forgive yourself for the wandering path that has led you to this moment. You could forgive yourself for learning things the hard way, for taking the easy way out, for being too young to know better, for being too old to begin, for trusting people who betrayed you, for betraying people who trusted you, for all your big and small decisions along the way.
You could forgive yourself for listening to your boundaries and saying no, or yes. Sometimes everyone involved is waiting uneasily for someone else to step forward, and your action is greeted with relief. You could forgive yourself for freezing and saying nothing at all.
You could forgive yourself for avoiding people who scare you. You could forgive yourself for staying close to people who repeatedly hurt you. It is easy to feel ashamed of kindness and love toward abusers. Instead, take pride in the kindness and love inside you.
You could forgive yourself for making mistakes, starting with tiny mistakes like leaving an unnecessary light on and continuing to catastrophic mistakes that caused ongoing harm. Are there any apologies and amends you want to make? Mistakes are part of being alive, part of not knowing the future or even everything about the present.
Injury and illness
You could forgive yourself for actions that led to a chronic injury. Back pain may start after lifting a heavy box, but the underlying cause is likely to be a complicated mix of physical and emotional history. You are doing your best to be healthy in each moment. Illness and pain are not a sign of failure, and even if they were, you could forgive yourself for them.
You could forgive your body for being too fat, too thin, too strong, too weak, too much of this and not enough of that and exactly the body it is right now. You could forgive your body for being sensitive to some things and insensitive to others. You could forgive your body for remembering trauma and reminding you with symptoms.
You could connect with your body and ask its forgiveness for disconnection. How do you feel as you listen for a response? Bodies are usually delighted to reconnect and do not hold grudges.
As you consider the possibilities for self-forgiveness, notice how much you have already forgiven yourself and others. No matter how much rage and turmoil you feel about some issues, there are many offenses you let pass with a shrug or worked through over years. Allow yourself to wonder: What would it be like to give up all hope of being a different person?
Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” from New and Selected Poems speaks to me of allowing self-forgiveness. (Link is to archive.org and loads slowly.)
* The definition of forgiveness comes from Martha Beck’s Leaving the Saints, where she slightly misquoted Lily Tomlin.