On Forgiving Oneself

One of Jesus Christ’s most troublesome messages is to love our enemies, a great challenge in this era of deepening religious and political hostilities as well as plain senseless violence. But suppose, as Carl Jung once wrote, that the enemy we are called to love is within? That we ourselves are in need of the kindness, compassion, and forgiveness we may give willingly to others? Perhaps the greatest challenge to loving that Inner Enemy is the challenge to forgive.

I have known many very spiritual people, loving and kind, of great service to others. Yet these same people treat themselves with a depth of judgment and hatred completely at odds with their treatment of others. I recall for example a very good priest who held himself in contempt for an occasional oh-so-human sin. As I listened to how he berated himself, I asked “Tell me, Father. When someone comes to you and confesses this very same sin, is this what you tell them? That they’re worthless? The priest answered “I would never say that to another person!”

We are called to forgive — again and again and again. But we are called to extend that forgiveness to ourselves as well as our outer enemies.

How can we approach such a difficult task? Think for a moment of something for which you may not have forgiven yourself. Suppose someone came to you and shared that they had committed that very same action. What would you say? How does that differ from what you say to yourself?

If you believe in the power of forgiveness, ask yourself too as to why your sins are worse than the ones you forgive in others.

Remember that forgiveness is not condoning. You’re not making excuses for yourself. You may still need to work on some area of behavior. What you are trying to do is salvage your own sense of goodness from the ashes.

The Catholicism of my youth was a punitive path where self-condemnation was almost encouraged. In fact, we are called to always balance judgment with compassion. But old tapes die hard, as they say. The tendency is still there to judge harshly.

Some time ago I was looking at a book of affirmations. there was one statement that said “You are beloved in the eyes of God.” “How hokey,how corny”, I thought. Yet I realized I had no problems accepting thoughts such as “You’re worthless” or “You’re beyond forgiveness.” Indeed, old taped die hard.

Recovery literature often refers to forgiveness as the acid test. Sadly, for many of us, the true acid test comes when we need to lovingly forgive ourselves. But we must try to offer to ourselves the healing balm of compassion and forgiveness that we more easily offer to others.

Reflection: 1. For what do you need to forgive yourself? Has that process of forgiving yourself been a struggle? How?

Further Reading: John Sanford’s The Kingdom Within

About richp45198

I am a clinical psychologist and have an abiding interest in matters spiritual.
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7 Responses to On Forgiving Oneself

  1. kaycers says:

    This is an excellent message and couldn’t come at a better time for me. I have already begun to realize that many of us (myself included) judge ourselves more harshly than others. I consider myself to be a healer, at least I hope that my ultimate purpose is to help the world heal itself, but in order to walk that path I know that I must learn to turn the same love, compassion and forgiveness I give to others inward as well. I will explore the reflection topic in my journal tonight. Thank you for your insights!

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  2. Thank you for this missive Rich. How much we all need it—how much I need it. For me, forgiveness is a process and not an event. I’ve been working on forgiving myself for some things for years, and I’m still working. But I let the process be and don’t add insult to my own injury by expecting myself to have it all done and finished. Clarissa Pinkola Estes talks about the process as lifelong and that if we forgive ourselves or anyone 30%, we are doing very well. If we forgive 60%, we are a saint, and if we forgive 80%, we are probably walking on water. The word “mercy” has become very precious to me in this process. I want to stop being merciless with myself and have as much mercy on me as God does.

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  3. Billie says:

    Powerful, Rich… powerful… need to think on this a bit…

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  4. Milly & Susan says:

    We are two cousins… Susan and Milly together for a week of chat and chew. Somehow our conversation goes to all the hurt,s, abandonments,and meanness of our extended biological family… real or perceived over the years. We have talked much about forgiveness, letting go, trying indifference, distance, righteous indignation, as ways of protecting ourselves from the toxicity of these relationships. This weekend we will be attending (our choice) a family wedding, and are aware with hyper-vigilance in anticipation of this gathering. We are trying to keep ourself open to just celebrating the marriage of a couple of kids who seem pretty decent, even tho they are family members! You see our on-going challenge! Somewhere in the mix, we understand the need to forgive these family folk – but perhaps more importantly, we need to forgive ourselves for keeping alive by feeding these old hurts. We hope by breathing deeply, feeling in solidarity with each other, and companionship we can go and just celebrate with joy. Thank you for your insights, Richard!

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  5. Jamie says:

    For those outside of me, I know forgiveness is a process. I have had to go through the immature indignation. I’ve had to own the anger, then the hurt. And then, when it’s time, when I’ve exhausted all the feelings and I’m weary of it all; that’s when I can forgive. For me, learning what forgiveness is has been a process that has matured me… that I can forgive not with impunity and brushing things under the carpet; but with awareness. In the process, I don’t jump back in bed with these people who have hurt me; I learn to understand what their limitations and weaknesses are and I set my boundaries accordingly. I stand up for myself instead of stew about some perceived slight. (It seems to me that people rarely have real intent against others, they only act out of their own self hate.) I do need to do this for myself, however. I need to understand my own limitations and weaknesses, and learn to have compassion for myself. I ask god to help me have compassion for myself. This is very important right now; as I feel myself on the cusp of depression. This time is different, though. I have forgiven those outside of me, for the most part (I do believe it’s an on going process). I am left alone with myself and my own self abuse, I have no one to blame. I have to take responsibility. I have to stop seeking quick fixes and distractions and face myself.
    Thanks for your awesome blog!

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    • Milly & Susan says:

      Milly and Susan thank you, Jamie. Your thoughts and insights are helpful to clarify our own feelings. Be gentle with yourself!

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  6. Susan says:

    Victor Frankl said that guilt is part of the tragic triad (pain, guilt, death) that all humans face. He asked the question, “Which of us has not failed?”. He also said that, as humans, we have the prerogative of becoming guilty, and we have the duty to overcome/transcend our guilt. This was his firm belief. And also that we should not look inward so much but rather focus outward on what is to be achieved, to be accomplished. He said that he only met one person in his life whom he believed to be pure evil. That evil person was responsible for the execution of hundreds if not thousands of people in mental institutions. But in the end, according to Frankl, he overcame his own evil nature and became one of the most helpful to all in the prison where he lived out his life before he died. Frankl pointed out that he had the chance to escape prison and go to South America as many others did, but he chose not to do so. I think Frankl mentioned this man because of two reasons. First, it is impossible to predict with certainty what a human being will do, and secondly, it is possible to overcome even great guilt or evil within one’s self. Forgiveness has themes that play out in therapy too. I work in an organization where clients can and do get fired by their therapist (and vice-versa). I have not fired any of mine because I myself was not fired. Like marriage and parenthood, there is something sacred about the therapeutic relationship, though all of these relationships need boundaries.

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