For many, self-forgiveness is the most challenging healing work we can do. But, is it always a good idea?
When my healing journey through forgiveness began many years ago, I hated myself. Through the lens of judgment, it was easy to see why. I had caused much harm to the world around me.
I vaguely remember the decision to make others suffer for my pain. I was fourteen years old. My life was supposed to be normal. After many years of turmoil and pain, I had a home, family, and friends. But the world I perceived was still filtered by the existential suffering I felt. It seemed to me at the time I needed someone to trust—an anchor and a tender hand.
But I was not the only one who suffered for the things that had happened. The people I counted on also suffered in silence. The resources I thought I needed simply were not available to that teenage girl. One night, I woke in a cold sweat, fever pulsing through my body. I stumbled to the bathroom to be sick. As the room spun and my body ached, I called out for my mother. She did not respond. She could not hear my calls for help.
After years of feeling alone, that night, I was reminded again that, indeed, I was on my own. That night my impulse to raise Cain was born. I became relentlessly selfish and hell-bent to make those around me suffer.
My young friends would soon join me on a ride of self-destruction that would lead me to homelessness before my eighteenth birthday. What might have been normal rebellion in others, for me, was a quest to destroy everything and everyone I met.
My first love would endure my wrath. Screaming, hitting, demeaning, and manipulating. A sweet young man caught in a game he could not possibly understand or navigate.
I was nineteen when my son was born. Finally, someone to love. Someone who surely would love me back. He did. We were madly in love. By that time, though, that decision to suffer was strengthened by years of practice. Rather than a choice, it was now a way of life.
After years of trying my best to obscure my pain from the tiny human I had created and adored, self-loathing won out. I became a drug addict. When he was ten, I was again homeless, this time fighting for my life.
During those years, I exposed him to darkness. I watched as the kindest, most generous person I had ever met—trusting in every way—transformed into someone he would probably not have been had my choices been different. His skinned thickened and his heart closed, a perfectly natural response to such an environment.
Three years later I realized, no matter how hard I tried, I was not going to die. Despite believing, knowing through-and-through, the world and my son would be better off without me, I was still alive. I had to find a way to deal with the emotional and spiritual pain. That is when my forgiveness journey began.
Forgiving others came more easily than forgiving myself. It turns out this is true for most of us (there are many reasons for this I discuss in The Power of Forgiveness). I found forgiving some only took a little work, allowing empathy and our common humanity to win out over the pain. With time and practice, I would eventually reach a place of deep compassion and gratitude for everyone in my past.
Self-forgiveness was another story. At first, I did what many do who feel they need forgiveness from others. This is a common misstep in the process. Their work is theirs. Ours is ours. I didn’t know that then, however, and I begged for mercy. I expressed my regret with earnest, pleading for help to heal. I cried and beseeched my son every time the perceived impact of his difficult childhood expressed itself.
We falsely believe our healing resides—in part or wholly—with others. We want so badly for our mistakes to be erased and the impact to magically transmute. In this, we burden them with the work that is ours to do. We also give away our power by mistakenly believing we need something from them.
You would not be asking whether or not you should forgive yourself if you didn’t feel remorse. The only time self-forgiveness isn’t a good idea is when we risk not learning from our actions. So, if you’re reflecting on the need to forgive yourself, then, yes, it is the right thing to do. There are several reasons this is so.
You can’t change the past, no matter how much remorse you hold. Absolute forgiveness is learning to embrace what has been and find gratitude for our lives. We might have done it differently, but this journey begins in the present moment.
Forgiving doesn’t mean not regretting. I can’t imagine I will ever not have regret. With all of me, I wish I had known the love and compassion that pulses through me today when my son was born.
By asking for forgiveness, you are sending the unintentional message that the person you are asking is other than they should be. “I am sorry I made you this way,” may be all they hear. You don’t have the power to take another human being off their path. This is a hard one but believing you have that kind of power is the grandest type of self-delusion. Do I wish the path of those around me (and myself) had been different, easier, kinder, safer? Of course, my heart aches at the suffering we have all endured. But, we can’t know the lessons another is here to learn. All we can do is demonstrate finding peace and hold a vision for theirs.
We can’t change the past. Knowing this, the questions become, “How do I transform my experience of suffering for the things I have done?” And, “How do I break the cycle?”
By healing the pain. By forgiving yourself fully. Be today what you wish you had been then. This is why this work is about more than me and you. I transform my pain. You transform yours. The cycle begins to break. Others have the freedom to choose their own healing. When we stop making other people’s lives about us, they are free.