Self Forgiveness: Why it Matters and How to Do It Consciously
Our capacity for self forgiveness determines our long term capacity for love. You might imagine that in relationships forgiving others reigns supreme over forgiving ourselves, but relationships require both in order to sustain loving connection over the long term
You’ll know you have a need for self forgiveness if you regularly experience self judgment and self criticism. If you carry guilt, you’ll want to learn how to forgive yourself. If you find yourself in shame attacks, self forgiveness may bring the relief you desperately need. Maybe you simply know you haven’t forgiven yourself for something you regret doing or not doing in the past. Maybe you find it hard to receive love and self forgiveness can help open your heart again.
As much as it can feel appropriate or even justified, sustained self-judgment, guilt, and shame helps no one. Being hard on ourselves doesn’t create positive change. Even if your action or inaction created hurt or pain for another person, refusing to forgive yourself over the long term only causes more harm.
What is self-forgiveness?
Self forgiveness occurs as both a process and experience. The process of self forgiveness takes us through a series of internal emotional steps that culminate in the actual embodiment of self forgiveness. In that moment of internal forgiveness, our body experiences a literal physical release. A relaxation of the being and an opening of the heart follows.
Many consider self forgiveness a mental process, something you decide to do. Yet you cannot decide to forgive and then instantaneously experience forgiveness. We can decide we want to forgive, or even that we are committed to forgiving ourselves, or another. However that is just the beginning of the process, as we’ll see in the “How to practice self forgiveness” section below.
The true experience of self forgiveness, with all of its ensuing benefits, is a somatic experience infused with emotion. In the beginning of the process the emotions will feel contractive, uncomfortable. We often want to escape these moments. We can feel it’s better to be mad at ourselves, to beat ourselves up, and even tell ourselves how stupid we are or were. We can think this self directed anger, judgment, and even ridicule will keep us on track so we don’t make that mistake again. Yet, this only serves to exacerbate the pain. It makes it stay. It amplifies it.
As we go through the process of forgiving, we will find ourselves, on the other side, in a bath of peace and love. From this place of self compassion and self care, we then have the ability to consciously address any issues or negative impact that was created by our previous action or inaction. If we don’t forgive ourselves first, our attempts to clean up and make amends will often backfire because we’re grasping for a forgiveness from another that we can truly only give ourselves.
When we do truly forgive ourselves, our past history and perceived mistakes, no longer replay themselves in our heads. Cellular memory leaves the body. With inner forgiveness and the accompanying release of the contractive, some might say negative, emotions within, we will be able to move forward in our lives and relationships with openness and trust. More importantly, we’ll establish a deepened confidence in ourselves and our abilities. We will have a more open heart and will have grown our capacity for love.
Why is self forgiveness so important?
When we don’t know how to self forgive we end up in an endless, yet sometimes unconscious, cycle of closing our heart to care, to support, and to love from others as well as ourselves. When we don’t forgive ourselves, each buried experience of self anger, self judgment, and the like perpetuates the insidious and destructive story that we are bad, not enough, incomplete, broken, and eventually undeserving of love. This lack of self forgiveness destroys our relationship with ourselves and that eventually destroys the relationships with the ones we love and who love us.
To make matters worse, when a true call for self forgiveness arises, we will also have the greatest need for love. Yet our inability or unwillingness to begin the process of forgiving ourselves will block the very love we so need in those most trying and painful moments.
Forgiveness of any kind allows us to stay in contact with and feel love. Without forgiveness we cannot fully feel love. If we are not feeling love, we are also not acting from love. When we don’t act from love, we will unconsciously and unintentionally cause harm and disconnection in the world.
In other words, self forgiveness is kindness. Self forgiveness is compassion. Self forgiveness is ultimately love. When you are kind to you, then you can be kind to others. You might imagine that you can be mad at yourself, beat yourself up, or say unkind things to you in your head and still be consistently kind to others.
Over the short term of course you can be kind. Yet, with time and repeated self-recrimination, the things we haven’t forgiven ourselves for will continue to close our hearts little by little. When our heart closes, it becomes much more difficult to stay kind. We become more reactive, less patient. We build up more regret, only adding to the pile of reasons we are mad at ourselves.
If we want to remain kind, compassionate, caring and loving in the world, if we want to be powerful, satisfied and creative, we must practice self forgiveness regularly, continuously in fact.
How to practice self forgiveness
As we mentioned above, the process of self forgiveness occurs in several steps. Depending on a person’s openness and how significant they deem the circumstances that need forgiving, someone may move through these steps quite quickly. Other times the steps will take more time as the self forgiveness happens in stages.
The process begins at the point when we recognize that we have something to forgive in ourselves. These circumstances could include anything from scoring poorly on a test, to being laid off, to saying something hurtful to someone we love, to not meeting the expectations we set for ourselves. We might need to forgive ourselves for doing something accidentally that hurt someone else or for reacting in a way that caused ourselves or another pain. We might need to forgive ourselves for not standing up for ourselves or setting a boundary. Sometimes it can feel like failure or guilt. Sometimes we can feel embarrassed or ashamed of our actions.
We need to forgive ourselves anytime and every time we judge or regret anything, any time we hold something against ourselves. Initially we may want to resist these feelings of regret or remorse. Yet, allowing these feelings is the first step.
Once we realize there is something to forgive ourselves for, we must begin to make peace within ourselves with what happened. We make peace in the process of self forgiveness by allowing ourselves to feel whatever we feel. Until we feel and release the feelings we will stay contracted and closed. In this practice of self forgiveness we allow our emotions to come and go. We do not get stuck in the story of what happened or why we shouldn’t forgive ourselves. This simply prolongs the process. In this step, we’re honest about what happened without being judgmental.
Then as we allow the contractive feelings to come and go, we want to create an understanding of how what happened could have happened. This includes an understanding that we are human and imperfect, a knowing that mistakes are a natural part of life. This brings us the necessary ingredient of humility in self forgiveness.
This understanding then leads to self compassion, which allows us to begin to care for the part of us that is hurting, embarrassed, or feeling guilty.
At this point, when we’re truly understanding and feeling compassionate, we’ll begin to feel the contraction in the body lessening. We’ll release self-judgment and surrender the pain. Here we’ll accept what happened without resistance.
Next, kindness, and sometimes courage, will begin to arise so that we can finally say the words “I forgive you” to ourselves and receive them. As we receive them, the cellular memory of the past events, even if they only happened earlier the same day, will release from the body. We’ll be in a deeper state of authentic self love.
Often the moment of the experience of self forgiveness will be accompanied by a sigh of relief, a deep cleansing breath, and a softening of the body and heart. You’ll feel and sense the completeness of the process.
While forgiveness in a relationship and the process of self forgiveness can seem complicated, intimidating, and time consuming, it’s actually quite simple and can happen quite rapidly. Some ask, “why is self forgiveness so hard?” Yet you can see that the actual experience of self forgiveness is an act of releasing, stopping, and opening – all of which are essentially effortless and take almost no time themselves.
Being willing to forgive is another story. That’s the part that takes most people the most time. Yet, if you remember that the longer you take to forgive yourself the more harm you create within yourself and your relationships, you’ll be motivated to take the necessary steps more quickly.
A lack of self forgiveness only serves to hold you back from living life fully. It holds you back from loving and being loved. When you aren’t living fully, not only are you missing out on the joy and love meant for you, those close to you, and even all of humanity, also lose out. If you aren’t living fully, you aren’t giving your greatest gifts and contributions to the world. If your heart remains closed, you’re not being open to the love that you and the world so need right now.
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