One of the most daunting challenges of forgiveness

In pastoral counseling and in the confessional, I have found that forgiving oneself is one of the most daunting challenges of forgiveness. It is not unusual that somebody is able to forgive another — even for grave offenses — yet not able to forgive oneself.

The inability to forgive oneself often arises because we live with ourselves daily. This means that we tend to focus more on our own faults and failures than on our inherent goodness and the good that we do. To point out faults or omissions can be healthy; this is generally done in life: sports, work, school, the arts, etc. In fact, the acknowledgement of one’s faults and omissions (constructive criticism) or even sin (healthy guilt) can lead to positive change and growth. It is the over-focusing and relentless reliving of faults (unhealthy guilt) that lead to being hard on oneself. The medical journalist Jean Lawrence writes, “If someone else did these things, you might learn to forgive them or at least let go of the anger. That’s because it’s easier to forgive others. After all, they don’t live in your head, reading you the same old riot act.”

Another source of the inability to forgive oneself arises from traumatic situations. First responders, medical personnel, combat military personnel, people in hazardous duty, survivors of natural disasters, conflicts or terrorists’ attacks often relive these traumatic experiences. Very often guilt and sorrow arise from their experiences: they feel that they have failed others who have died, been killed or are incapacitated. This is so-called “survivors’ guilt,” now recognized as a significant symptom of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). People who have experienced trauma often view themselves as survivors; they feel guilty that they have come through unscathed (at least physically) while others have not. They often say and feel: “Why them and not me?” They ponder on what should have happened or should have been done and feel that they have left others down.

The inability to forgive oneself is allowing guilt or trauma to dominate one’s life. This guilt may arise from a real or even perceived failure. If the failure is real, then it should be viewed for what it is and not made bigger. Failure can then become a stepping stone to a greater good.

Sometimes failure is perceived when we feel we have let others down. This arises from tragic situations affecting loved ones: divorce, a drug overdose, suicide, unexpected injury or death. We feel that we should have done more and therefore we feel guilty. In reality, however, no true fault or sin has been committed; yet, guilt dominates the mind and heart.

Joretta L. Marshall, Ph.D., a United Methodist minister and professor of pastoral care at the Eden Theological Seminary in Saint Louis states: “I think people often try to forgive themselves for the wrong things. We think we ought to forgive ourselves for being human and making human mistakes. … Forgiveness means being specific about what we did that needs forgiving.”

Some failures (or factors leading to failure) have real, irreversible consequences; this is not to be underestimated. Nonetheless, every failure or sin — no matter how grave — can lead to a positive good only if we allow it to. We allow ourselves to grow when we make guilt not an end-point, but a stepping stone to a greater good or a lesson learned.

Sharon A. Hartman, a clinical trainer for a drug and alcohol program, states, “When resentment is interfering with your life, it’s time to forgive yourself. So many people have a constant, critical voice in their heads narrating their every move. … Forgiving doesn’t mean not being angry with yourself, but not hating yourself.” Hartman points out another challenge. She states, “It’s about relinquishing a source of pain and letting go of resentment. People think forgiving yourself means you are letting yourself get away with whatever it was you did. The pain and anger you are feeling are supposed to be your punishment.”

Ironically this way of thinking is a form of assuaging the trauma and pain; the person is basically saying: “I have gotten my just deserves; I have gotten what is coming to me for my failure.” They are living out a “life-long penance” that they “deserve.” Sometimes they do not want to release the pain or guilt because they feel that they are no longer grieving for the other. They believe that if they do not feel pain then they are letting the other down (again). In other words, they have found a “safe place” and do not want to move on to the often scary phase of recovery or healing. They feel “safe” in their guilt.

In the end, forgiving oneself means that a wrong or a deep pain is recognized for what it is; yet, it does not paint our whole life. There is much more to “me” than pain, failure or sin. The ability (and grace) of forgiving oneself is a recognition that even failure can lead to good. To arrive at this point we need constant prayer and the help of a trusted friend or counselor who will accompany and listen. The grace of prayer and sound counseling can bring peace of mind and the freedom that not everything is within one’s control. The grace of forgiving oneself does not mean that one forgets or stops grieving; forgiving oneself means that we are humans with shortcomings and limitations and that, by the grace of God, these shortcomings can lead to lessons learned and to a greater understanding of and compassion toward others in similar difficulties. One cannot change one’s past; however, one can change one’s life for the better.

Categories: Columns, Forgiveness

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