Okay, you did it. You spent half the month’s food budget on a new coat, didn’t get to your son’s soccer match before the second half, put your mom in a nursing home, and, when the cat’s yowling got on your nerves, you–you awful person!–let him outside where he was promptly hit by a car.
Yikes! Your family and friends would never forgive you if they knew half of what you do. Unfortunately, you know the whole. And the sheer awfulness of it rocks you with guilt and sinks you with shame. God may forgive you. But how on earth are you ever going to forgive yourself?
Why You Can’t Forgive yourself
Probably one of the few people who can tell you is psychologist Fred Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. A tall, rangy researcher who regularly lopes across the Palo Alto campus in khakis and running shoes, Dr. Luskin has been conducting studies and workshops on forgiveness up and down the California coast for the past several years. From Berkeley to Big Sur, he’s worked with men who’ve cheated on their wives, wives who’ve cheated on their husbands, kids who’ve dumped their parents, parents who’ve dumped their kids, and a whole lot worse.
Amazingly, the biggest obstacle he’s found to self-forgiveness may be the tendency we have to wallow in our own guilt. “It’s not just that we feel bad because we know we’ve done wrong,” he explains. Everybody does that. But some of us actually draw those bad feelings around ourselves like a blanket, cover our heads, and refuse to stop the wailing.
If that sounds nuts to you, you’re not alone. Wailing should be reserved for the victim, not the perpetrator, right? But some of us try to use those bad feelings like a talisman to ward off the consequences of our actions, says Dr. Luskin. We curl up in a ball and say, “Hey! Look how bad I feel! See how I’m suffering! I’m pitiful! I’m pathetic! I can’t be punished any more than this; it wouldn’t be fair!”
“It’s a crazy form of penance,” adds Dr. Luskin with a shake of his head. Instead of taking responsibility for what we’ve done by trying to repair the damage or make things right, many of us unconsciously decide–mea culpa–to punish ourselves by feeling miserable for the rest of our lives.
It’s not just about you
Unfortunately, the decision to feel miserable for the rest of your life can have tragic consequences. And not always in obvious ways.
For one thing, misery loves company. “If you keep beating yourself up, then the person who tries to love you is going to get beat up too,” explains Dr. Luskin. It’s inevitable. Anyone who’s wallowing in guilt is going to be more withdrawn, more critical, and less open than they normally would. So whoever’s around–your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, even your dog–is going to suffer right along with you.
Nor does the suffering stop with those around you. Mind affects body in a zillion interconnecting ways, and those guilty feelings you’re nurturing are generating chemicals that are headed straight for your vital organs. They increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, disrupt your digestion, tense your muscles, dump cholesterol into your bloodstream, and reduce your ability to think straight. And every time you remember what you did and wince, those bad feelings give you a fresh hit of corrosive chemicals.
It’s no wonder that studies on forgiveness have led scientists to suspect that those who have difficulty forgiving are more likely to experience heart attacks, high blood pressure, depression, and other ills.
“Remember the saying, ‘For everything there is a season’?” he asks. “Well, there’s a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that. But the season ends; the world moves on. And we need to move on with it.”
1. Categorize the offense “Most of us find it hard to forgive ourselves when we’ve done one of four things,” says Dr. Luskin.
- You fail at some major life task such as making your marriage work.
- Your actions have hurt someone else.
- You’ve hurt yourself by the way you’ve led your life: drinking or doing something else that’s self-destructive.
- You didn’t do something you thought you should, such as intervene in a family dispute or put money away so your kid can go to college.
- “Categorizing the offense begins the forgiveness process,” emphasizes the psychologist. “It allows you to break down what you did, look at it, get a little distance, and begin healing.”
2. Know how you feel “Articulate the specific wrong you committed and the harm it caused,” says Dr. Luskin. “Tell a couple of trusted people about what you did to get support, care, and advice,” he adds. Sharing reminds us that everyone makes mistakes. “We commonly think we’re alone and unique in our suffering, but this only makes healing more difficult,” adds Dr. Luskin. Confessing what you’ve done also prevents you from slipping into denial, suppression, repression, and forgetting.
3. Understand what you want You don’t necessarily want to reconcile with the person you hurt, you just want to get rid of the shame, release the blame, and feel calm and whole at your center.
4. Recognize unrealistic expectations Most of us have a set of unconscious rules hovering in the back of our minds about how we expect ourselves to behave. But those rules, many of which we’ve absorbed in childhood rather than actually thought about, are not always realistic.
5. Identify the hurt Realize that the hurt feelings, guilty thoughts, and tummy-tightening stress you feel whenever you think of your offense is what’s actually making you feel bad—not what you did 2 minutes or 10 years ago, says Dr. Luskin. It’s your reaction to it today that’s causing a problem. It’s a habit that has to go.
6. Hit the stop button Replaying what you did over and over again in your head isn’t going to help you or the person you hurt. It just makes you feel bad. So every time you catch yourself ruminating on your sins, stop, and refocus your attention on something more positive.
7. Lose the Wicked Witch thing It’s time to stop telling yourself the old story in which you’re the Wicked Witch of the West. Start telling yourself a new story: a heroic story in which, despite your human frailties, you do everything in your power to be a forgiving person.
8. Put things in perspective Once a day, think of all the kind and loving things you’ve done today alone: the stray dog you picked up and returned to its owner, the crying child you distracted so its mother could eat her lunch, the dry cleaning you picked up after work so that your honey could exercise. Think about it for very long, and you’ll realize that you’ve become one amazing person!
(article found on the soberrecovery forums cireca 2003)