Yesterday, I presented a blog post about how to thrive in life and one of the elements in that post was about forgiving yourself. That element really tripped me up and I spent the day pondering it. My pondering turned to reading, and the reading culminated in this follow up. Forgiving yourself is one of the hardest things to do and apparently one of the most important things you can do.
“He who is devoid of the power to forgive, is devoid of the power to love.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve always thought of myself as a tolerant and forgiving person. My reflection yesterday proved otherwise. I don’t forgive the transgressions in others, I ignore the transgressions. When another person slights me, I don’t forgive them, I dismiss the incident as if the slight didn’t occur. It feels like forgiveness but it really isn’t. My rationalization of their actions is guided by my general bias that people are generally selfish, generally well-meaning, and generally stupid. So a lot of harm usually comes from general good intentions due to ignorance and selfishness. When I am slighted, I chalk it up to yet another manifestation of human folly. Cursing a shopping cart with a bad wheel fixes nothing. That isn’t forgiveness.
When you learn to forgive yourself you are first learning how to forgive others.
The reading I did yesterday felt like punches to my gut. I was reading the same kind of language I use regarding victims and victimization. Specifically, we get to choose if we are defined as victims or not. Everyone can be victimized but we get to choose if we are going to be known as a victim. Being a victim is giving control over our self-definition to someone else and that is never healthy. Discussions on forgiveness use this same type of language.
When you’re ready, actively choose to forgive the person who’s offended you. Move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life. As you let go of grudges, you’ll no longer define your life by how you’ve been hurt. (Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/forgiveness/MH00131)
Forgiving others releases their control over you. Mahatma Gandhi said, “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” If we see things like grudges as bonds we allow others to place upon us, forgiveness breaks those bonds. It does take a strong person to set aside base instincts of revenge, of trying to find personal justice, and move beyond a trying moment, telling ourselves that the crime and injustice we suffered is but a small moment in our lives and does not define our lives.
Forgiving ourselves is harder. Much harder.
I never want to be that person who blindly stomps on people and never realizes the harm or injustice that I’ve caused in this world. I have a real dislike for people who think each and every action they take is a noble, pure, and absolutely correct action and use the ‘correctness’ of the action to justify any emotional or physical damage they have caused. I don’t want to be one of those people. To counter this trait I see in the world, I hold myself accountable for everything and never forgive myself. Forgiveness seems like it has to come from other people, but other people can’t forgive me for the transgressions I committed to myself.
“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.” – Bernard Metzer
Forgiveness does not mean condoning. When we forgive someone for accidentally spilling coffee on us, we aren’t declaring it is okay to pour coffee on us. Forgiving ourselves isn’t saying our transgressions are okay and we get to keep doing them. Specific examples are needed so this doesn’t become too abstract. One of the many things I have a hard time forgiving myself for is in regards to my health and exercise. I came to serious exercise far too late in life and now struggle with my weight a bit, my cholesterol, my strength and my stamina. I can’t seem to forgive myself for being so lazy and sedentary. Everyday I step on the scale I am reminded that I did this to myself and then dwell on it. I feel a need to punish myself for doing this to myself. Yes, I realize just how messed up that sounds.
Forgiveness is a transformative experience and there is a simple reliable way to measure if we have truly given forgiveness. If we can look back on the transgression and not feel pain or regret, then we have forgiven. Seeking forgiveness from others and ourselves means making changes. Taking corrective actions. Am I beating myself up for failing to do something? Then I need to take action to correct that transgression. If I am upset about not being physically fit, then I need to commit myself to a program that will make me physically fit and then I can forgive myself for all those years sitting on the sofa eating Doritos.
We all screw up. Forgiving ourselves is how we learn from the screw up and start fresh.
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” – Mark Twain