Can You Forgive Yourself?

Mature man in deep thought
By Michael Weinberg, PhD, LPC, CPAI Senior Manager, Department of Behavioral Health, Banner Thunderbird Medical Center
By Michael Weinberg, PhD, LPC, CPAI Senior Manager, Department of Behavioral Health, Banner Thunderbird Medical Center

Every now and then I write an article about some of the difficult aspects of the holiday season. Today I thought I would address an issue that is not usually discussed this time of year.

Forgiveness.

In the field of addictions and recovery, we talk about the importance of amends (apologies) as an integral part of the 12-step process. Forgiveness can be seen as a response to amends, but we clearly have no control over whether that ever occurs. The forgiveness I want to write about is the importance of self-forgiveness.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy shame

For most of us carrying shame has an important role in our moral and ethical compass. Shame lets us know that what we may have done was outside our value system and we realize to one extent or another that we possibly could have done things differently.

This sense of shame can range from slightly annoying to a constant annoying feeling that can overwhelm your day. This level of shame can contribute to inappropriate expressions of anger, feelings of depression and sometimes the desire to medicate these feelings with alcohol or drugs. I would consider this unhealthy shame.

On the other hand, some level of shame could be healthy if it lets us know that we need to examine our behaviors. If we did not have shame, it may be in our minds justifiable to hurt even those we love. If we did something that we wish we could have done differently, we may need to address it in an honest and sometimes an assertive fashion.

Are you being less than honest?

I will start with what may be a common issue for most people: being less than honest. A few things need to occur before you begin the process of self-forgiveness:

  • Be honest with yourself and really think about what you did and its impact on others. Would owning the behavior and making amends (sincere apology) be appropriate? Or would saying sorry to someone be harmful because it brings up the feelings of hurt again. Consider sharing your thoughts with a person you respect and who will listen and protect your confidentiality.
  • Commit to not making the same mistake again and to accept a better way of behaving. In other words, what did you learn from this experience?
  • Self-forgiveness comes when you undergo this process. These steps are also applicable for most other behaviors such as cheating, being unfaithful, gossiping, etc.

Begin to forgive yourself with a simple affirmation:

“I am worthy of a good life and happiness in spite of my imperfections.”

We are often judged by not what we do but what we do after we did it. We all, as part of the human experience, make mistakes, inadvertently hurt people we care for or love. But do we own our mistakes and do we learn from them?

Some people tend to blame others for whatever goes wrong. That type of individual does not need to forgive themselves because they do not see themselves as part of the problem. But for those who own their errors, there are opportunities for change and therefore forgiveness.

To let go of the shame remind yourself of your worth for happiness and that your imperfections give you the opportunity for growth.

So, to recap. You might want to print this list and keep it handy:

  1. Identify the behavior you are having shame over.
  2. Do you need to make amends?
  3. If you do not need to make amends, share your behavior with someone who you respect.
  4. Commit to not repeating the behavior.
  5. Embrace your worth and allow your imperfections. Be accountable and change what needs to be changed.

Remember if nothing else, be kind to yourself. It will make it easier to be kind to others. And, hold yourself accountable because if you don’t others will.

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