FORGIVING YOURSELF

by Richard B. Patterson

The ultimate spiritual challenge may be to forgive. But years of talking with struggling souls has convinced me that there is one person whom many of us have particularly great difficulty forgiving. That person is oneself.

You may have had the experience of making a major mistake, perhaps deeply hurting someone you love, then replaying the event over and over again with an accompanying negative narration. "You terrible bum, you sinner, you worthless piece of ----. How could you do that? What is wrong with you?" People of a religious bent will even feel condemned to the fires of hell with themselves being judge and jury. In essence, we sometimes view our own failings to be beyond the forgiveness even of God.

To forgive oneself is not to make excuses for oneself. We want to try to learn from our mistakes, to gain a degree of self-control, to grow in our capacity for love and peace. Not forgiving ourselves makes these goals harder to reach since the event from the past remains powerful and unchanging.

So how can we approach releasing ourselves from the powerful grip of our own mistakes?

  1. Learn how to make amends. This involves more than a simple "I'm sorry." It involves a willingness to listen to another person's hurt. It involves a willingness to take immediate corrective action. Keep in mind, though, the guideline of Alcoholics Anonymous that recognizes that sometimes we ask for forgiveness strictly to feel better and without consideration of how our disclosure might affect the other person. If our disclosure might cause the other person harm, we need to find an indirect way of making amends, if only by praying for the person we've harmed.
  2. Think how you might respond to someone else guilty of the same mistake. Would you berate that person to the extent that you berate yourself? I've dealt with many Catholic priests who greatly condemn themselves for various mistakes. I will ask them "Father, if someone confesses to that sin, do you tell them the same things you tell yourself? Call them the same names?" Without exception, each priest says "Absolutely not!" So why are your sins worse than everybody else's? Think especially of how you would respond to someone you love if you learned he/she was treating himself/herself in the way you treat yourself.
  3. Confess your wrongdoing. This may occur through a process of amends-making. It may occur within the context of a religious ritual. Or you may simply be able to share your failing with a trusted adviser such as a therapist, a spiritual director or a trusted friend. Confession really does help with releasing that about which we are ashamed.
  4. Practice loving yourself. We hear lots about loving our neighbor but forget that most of the great religious leaders of the world also urge us to love ourselves. Evaluate how you treat yourself in body, mind, emotions, and spirit. How loving is that treatment?

03/23/01

Richard B. Patterson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in El Paso, TX. He is the author of three books on psychology and spirituality.

 

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