Experiencing thoughts or urges about harming ourselves is actually quite common, though it’s often something we don’t talk openly about. There are many reasons why people might harm themselves, and struggling with forgiveness might be part of it. It’s often circular, too; in the aftermath of self-harm, it’s common to feel guilty and ashamed, and the act of harm might become something that’s hard to forgive.
Forgiveness can be a powerful catalyst to move towards a more contented life. Forgiving ourselves is about allowing ourselves to move on from past experiences, without holding on to self-punishing thoughts and feelings. This involves tolerating difficult feelings of distress, regret, remorse, guilt, and maybe shame. It often includes trying to repair relationships and showing others that we’re sorry for any hurt we’ve caused. In my experience, we’re often slower to forgive ourselves than those around us are. If this sounds familiar, it can be helpful to think how we might respond if someone had done what we did, would we forgive them more easily than we’re forgiving ourselves? It can also be helpful to choose to try to treat ourselves like our friends and loved ones do – to show ourselves the same compassion that others show us, to trust them when they say, ‘it’s ok, I hear that you’re sorry, I forgive you’.
Sometimes, though, those around us are struggling with forgiveness too. They might not readily welcome us back into their lives, they might be struggling with their own feelings of anger, pain and resentment. They might not be ready to forgive. This can make it harder for us to forgive ourselves. But even in these difficult situations, we can choose to practise forgiveness and compassion – compassionately accepting their position, forgiving them and choosing to forgive ourselves too. Our apology doesn’t demand their forgiveness. Being compassionate towards them includes respecting where they’re at.
I think that compassion is key in forgiveness. Bringing in compassion opens up a space where forgiveness can grow. Developing compassion for ourselves and others is about treating ourselves and others with warmth, kindness, non-judgement and respect. So, in the context of forgiving ourselves, it’s showing care towards the part of us that did something regrettable, reducing judgement towards ourselves and respecting that we’re remorseful and want to behave better in future. This isn’t about letting ourselves off the hook or discounting our responsibility for our actions or misdemeanours. But it is about accepting that we’re human and that sometimes we ‘mess up’, acknowledging the struggles that might have affected our behaviour, and trusting that we all deserve to be forgiven. My view is that forgiveness is open to everyone, where there’s remorse and a genuine desire to change.
Forgiveness might not come immediately, whether it’s towards yourself or towards others who’ve hurt you. It’s a choice, a practise, an active process. Some days might be harder than others. Some things will undoubtedly be easier to forgive than others. But without compassion as the foundation, our forgiveness is shaky and unstable. So if forgiveness feels like an impossibility, try starting with a bit of compassion. Taking an attitude of self-compassion includes treating ourselves kindly on the days when forgiveness feels hardest, when the self-criticism is loudest and the shame is strongest. Those are probably the days when we need self-compassion most of all.
If you’re struggling with thoughts about hurting yourself, reach out and talk to someone.
Home Tasks to help us forgive ourselves (by Cher Engerer):
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