As I was thinking through a particularly painful, fraught interpersonal issue the other day (the one that sparked my post on emotions and needs), I found myself getting fairly amped up and frustrated at myself for having let the situation go on as long as I did. Why didn’t I see it all earlier?! Why didn’t I stand up for myself in *these specific ways*?! Why didn’t I speak my heart and needs?! How could I betray myself so deeply?!
This was a rare time when me getting on social media actually had a good effect. I came across this post by Dr. Nicole LePera (instagram.com/the.holistic.psychologist):
Reading that finally rooted the belief in me that… I can forgive myself. Better than that, I can offer myself understanding. I can offer the same empathy to myself that I offer to others.
Out of that realization, I took a moment to tell myself that in this situation I did the best I could as long as I could, that I had been acting, speaking, and working from a place of fear and self-defense, but also out of a lack of knowledge and understanding of the situation, and of myself. I didn’t have the knowledge and empowerment then that I do now; it took all this time for me to be able to do what I’m doing now, even to recognize that I had betrayed myself in those ways. I’m in a different situation and have different resources available to me now — it doesn’t make sense to wholly evaluate (or judge) my past self based on what I have available to me, and based on who I am, today.
I wonder, too, if sometimes our judgment of our past deeds and selves stems from a weird, not-totally-understood drive to change the past, even though we know it’s not possible. Is part of the difficulty in forgiving ourselves a sort of strange and irrational, though deeply rooted, belief that we should change it? That we should make it better? Not in the sense of doing better now to sort of make up for it, but to change the very past that we struggle with? Is this a paradoxical expectation of the self-loathing and the anxious?
I’ve written about my thoughts on this before, but I didn’t realize how strangely comforting and calming that idea could be. I gave myself permission to let the past be exactly what it is — determined, fixed, and what it was always going to be. I don’t mean that in doing so I decided to enable myself and give myself broad, careless permissiveness to not care about my failures, shrugging off any hurt I caused along the way (to others and to myself); I mean it in the sense of deciding that I could and should free myself from the pressure to have always put myself in the best situation possible, and from the pressure to have acted perfectly in each situation, because I was only capable of doing what I turn out to have done. I can and should be sorrowful for hurt I caused (to myself and others) and can (and should?) have some sort of wish I had done or been able to do things differently, but I can think that from a perspective of love and care rather than judgment. Accepting without judgment the limitations of my past self is key to this, I think, and that comes out in how I judge the necessity of the past as I work to forgive myself.
I think there are two sides to the self-forgiveness coin. First, when I forgive myself, I acknowledge to myself that I have grown since that incident and that I would and will act differently in the future. I trust in myself to have learned and grown, to act in the ways I now see are healthier and better — for me and for those around me. I trust myself to take the lessons, the feelings, the messy jumble and try in the way that I can to make better, more empowering, braver decisions in the future. Forgiving myself looks like starting to trust myself.
Second, when I forgive myself, I offer myself grace, love, and comfort. I acknowledge that all actions, thoughts, motivations, and capabilities are greatly circumscribed and determined by situations. Situations we often have very little choice in establishing or setting up. In choosing to forgive myself, I let the situation and my actions show me what I turned out to be capable of and accept that with love, and look to what resources I might need to acquire in order to act differently (if I decide to act differently) in the future. I observe and love more than I judge. Forgiving myself, then, also looks like starting to give myself understanding. If I am going to bifurcate myself like this, by observing and acting towards myself, then there’s a real sense in which I can empathize with myself.
(This is a huge mental shift that makes me think of Bernard Williams’ amazing book and I really, really need to write a review on it.)
Breaking it down like this, I realize that really forgiving myself is going to take a while. Making any intellectual or mental habit changes requires action. It’s not enough to think it; we need to live it in a way that roots certain attitudes and beliefs in our being, not just in our rational faculties (THOUGH HOW I WISH I COULD JUST RELY ON REASON. I’m good at the rational stuff). So in that vein, I thought it worth sharing some things I’m doing to try to move forward with releasing myself from the unhealthy judgment and unhealthy expectations I have internalized, the things I am doing to move to a place of self-understanding and love.
What I’m doing to work towards forgiving myself by building trust in myself:
- Saying no for the sole reason that the thought of saying yes feels bad. I want to start trusting those messages and acting on those messages, to live out that effort of trust. If I start trusting myself in little things, then I can move towards believing that I can trust myself in general, both in the past and in the future.
- If I feel myself projecting my self-loathing to my body, I will put a hand on whatever body part I am criticizing myself about and speak gratitude to and for my body for all it does for me, and I speak out loud that it is beautiful and loved as-is. Counteracting all my instinctive negative self-talk about my body is helping me feel better in my body, and as an embodied being. It helps reinforce that the messages I get from my body (including those that go into shaping my rational empathy) are to be trusted. Not only that, they are worth listening to. They have something unique and intensely valuable to share and I can learn beautiful, painful, important things from my body when I stop battling against it, against myself.
- Articulating what I feel like I need and giving myself that. It’s hard for me to acknowledge that I need something, and even harder to commit to giving myself what I need (or asking for what I need if I need it from someone else). Starting to honor and respond to my own recognized needs communicates that I trust myself to be a reliable source of info about my own well-being.
What I’m doing to work towards forgiving myself by increasing my understanding of and empathy with myself:
- I love what Dr. Nicole LePera says about parenting our inner child. When my anxiety and depression rear their ugly heads (more aggressively than they do on the regular), I am trying to talk to and nurture myself as a loving parent would, by imagining myself giving my smaller self a hug, speaking kindly to myself, asking myself what I need to feel comforted and safe, and honoring whatever request or answer comes up. It feels a bit weird to bifurcate myself like this, but I am starting to find it remarkably helpful and comforting.
- I take long morning walks. Moving in a gentle way has been reassuring for my tired body.
- I meditate. I love the Headspace app, and also use Calm. Getting into a space of observation and non-judgment for 10 minutes helps me more easily step into observation and non-judgment towards myself in moments of stress and panic.
- I read. Mostly philosophy and beautiful literature. Fiction helps me get out of my own head, philosophy helps me make sense of this mad, beautiful world and my place in it. I also sprinkle in some psychology to help understand my own head.
- I get out into nature. It’s amazing what feeling connected to this big, verdant tangle of life can do to make someone feel better about herself. I am part of this big beautiful mess, and it’s not a mess because it’s bad — it’s a mess only because it is living out loud; the mess is actually a beautiful web of interconnected life, of individuals living boldly with each other in the constrained but open environment in which they grew. I am so grateful to be part of it, and if I love the whole, I should love my part as a component of that whole.
I’d love to know what forgiving yourself looks like in your life, both in thought and in action.