“I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but everything changes and my friends seem to scatter but I think it’s about…forgiveness…forgiveness…even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.” – from The Heart of the Matter, a song by Don Henley
Over these many years of living a life devoted to personal awakening and transformation, and supporting others in doing the same, the undeniable need to get to the heart of forgiveness has surfaced time and time again.
The word forgiveness can be a loaded one. It means different things to different people, and different things to the same person over time. It is fundamentally simple yet, for me, intricately nuanced.
I could probably write a whole book about forgiveness, as countless others have already done. But right now I want to shine a light on just one aspect of forgiveness that is often mentioned but not often emphasized: self-forgiveness.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read chapters or books on forgiveness, each one eloquent and powerful in its own way. Many of these teachings include detailed rituals, processes and prayers to help the reader forgive others who have hurt them. Often at the end, sometimes literally as a footnote, is a sentence such as this:
Remember to forgive yourself, too.
It’s almost as if self-forgiveness is an afterthought, something nice to do but not essential. In my experience, self-forgiveness is absolutely, positively essential. And for many of us, forgiving ourselves is far more difficult than forgiving others.
We’re often willing to see that others’ hurtful words or actions arise from having, themselves, been hurt, just as a wounded animal will lash out at the person trying to help it. But we see our own hurtful words or actions as character defects that reveal how deeply flawed we really are. And then we condemn ourselves for those flaws. We withhold forgiveness from ourselves because we don’t think we deserve it.
The terrible irony is that our false belief in unworthiness is the very thing that gives rise to the actions we later condemn ourselves for doing (or not doing). And every time we punish ourselves for acting in a way we wish we hadn’t, we reinforce that sense of unworthiness and set ourselves up for making hurtful mistakes again.
Here’s how it works. The pain of believing ourselves to be flawed or unworthy or “not enough” in some way is so great, we either get swallowed up by it, which leads to profound depression, or we devise all kinds of ways to avoid it.
We don’t do this in a conscious, thoughtful way, but in an unconscious, reflexive way, just as we might swiftly close our hearts to love after we’ve been hurt by another. In this case we’re hurting ourselves with our own judgments of unworthiness, but the same reflex to protect ourselves from pain kicks in.
Often, this unconscious reflex impels us to seek validation of our worthiness from others. That doesn’t work, but we keep trying. At least it distracts us for a while from the pain of believing ourselves to be flawed, and being validated by others is a pleasurable distraction.
So we keep doing it. We keep looking for love in all the wrong places. But when the pain we’re hiding is deep and raw, looking to others to validate our worth can become an insidious, almost desperate need, seducing us to act in ways that hurt ourselves and others without our conscious awareness or agreement.
It’s almost as if we are hypnotized, or sleepwalking. We are up and about, taking care of daily tasks and communicating with others, but we’re not fully present. We are carrying out orders from an unseen commander who has brainwashed us into thinking we’re seeing clearly and making good choices.
An example of this is the corporate climber who pushes and strives for the next promotion, the next bonus, the next “win” to further her career. She thinks she’s doing what she’s supposed to do to succeed, but she’s really driven by an unconscious need to prove her worthiness to herself. Ignoring her true needs for balance and rest, and her family’s longing for her presence in their lives, she ends up feeling exhausted and her family feels abandoned.
Or the man who felt unloved by his mother and isn’t aware of subtle signals his pain is sending out to women he dates. In their attraction to him he feels lovable and desirable, and so he convinces himself that he wants to be in a relationship with them, but in truth he doesn’t. The relationships end in confusion and bitterness, with everyone feeling misled.
Or the parents who believe they are steering their children toward good choices when they’re actually restricting or controlling them, mistakenly believing deep down that their children’s behavior is a reflection of their own worth. The children feel judged and confined and the parents feel betrayed when the children make their own choices.
In all of these examples the people are making conscious choices – to work hard, to be in a romantic relationship, to give their children advice – but they aren’t aware of their unconscious motivation for making those choices.
Please don’t misunderstand me here. The desires to create, to achieve, to love and be loved and to guide our children are natural and healthy. But they can be distorted, through the inner pain of feeling unworthy, into experiences that are unnatural and painful, because believing in our unworthiness is an unnatural and painful state of being.
Once someone has been hurt, it’s easier to see how misguided the motivation behind the behavior actually was. It’s also incredibly easy to judge and condemn it. And when we are the ones who were unwittingly seduced into misguided behavior by our own pain, we judge and condemn ourselves. We feel deeply ashamed.
We see it as evidence that we are flawed and, therefore, unworthy.
We don’t understand that our false belief in unworthiness is what triggered the whole thing to begin with. In the absence of that false belief, we would never have devised ways to cover up its pain. We would never have believed we needed someone else to validate what is self-evident. We would simply live and act from the truth of who we are, which is whole and worthy and loving, and from that place no one gets hurt.
In other words, we don’t understand that we generated hurt not because we are flawed and unworthy, but because we are blind to our innate and glorious worthiness.
That’s why self-forgiveness isn’t complete without the intention to see the truth of who we are and to let go of all false beliefs in our unworthiness.
Genuine forgiveness is all about liberation. We free ourselves from the tyranny of believing a gross untruth about who we are, and we free others from any conscious or unconscious demands to prove to us what never needed to be proven.
This liberation generally occurs in stages, over time. In my experience it is an ever-deepening process and not a singular event, although that process can be powerfully supported by indescribable moments of Grace that help us see, in a magical instant, who we really are.
I have been the grateful recipient of those moments of Grace, which I believe our innate innocence calls into our experience to remind us that we are loved – and that we are deserving of that love.
I remember a night many years ago when I was tossing and turning in my bed, highly agitated because of the relentless, self-withering thoughts that were swirling through my mind. I was mentally punishing myself because of a mistake I had made. In that barrage of condemnation the mistake became bigger and more grotesque and my sense of self-worth shriveled to almost nothing.
Then suddenly yet very softly, a different thought emerged in my awareness. Actually it was a question, and it felt as if I was hearing it as a voice rather than thinking it. This new voice asked me quietly, “So, Suzanne, can you love yourself even now?”
Immediately a huge wave of YES flowed over me and through me, and along with it an indescribable sense of relief. I was graced with an instant realization that it was only in the absence of self-love that I made poor choices, and only in the presence of self-love – full on, I-love-you-no-matter-what kind of love – could I be restored to wholeness.
It was a moment so stunning in its simplicity, brilliance and truth, I can only call it sacred.
I cherish that moment to this day. It has become a touchstone for me, a remembrance to anchor into when I’m adrift on a sea of self-condemnation. Yes, I have gone adrift several times since that magical moment, which is why I understand self-forgiveness as an ever-deepening process and not a singular event. It just isn’t a “one and done” kind of thing.
I suspect it would be exceedingly rare for anyone to make one mistake, forgive herself or himself, and then never make a mistake again. The process of learning and growing will, by design, continue bringing to the surface anything limiting us that needs to be released. That includes any hidden, painful and shaming false beliefs that seduce us into making mistakes that hurt us or hurt others. These beliefs need to be seen for what they are and then released.
Release is the very essence of forgiveness: it is a choice to release our self-judgments and open to the deeper truth of who we are. It is a release of the past so we can be fully present, now. And so self-forgiveness becomes an essential, ongoing aspect of our personal growth. As the spiral of evolution turns, we encounter new opportunities to love and forgive ourselves more deeply.
A few years and a few turns of the spiral after that Grace-filled moment in the dark of night, I fell once again into the rabbit-hole of self-condemnation after having made what I felt was the worst mistake I could have made.
I went through cycles of deep shame, over and over again. My vicious, abusive thoughts attacked me continuously. I was mired in the torment of self-condemnation and I couldn’t see any way out. It was dark, it was crushingly painful and it was profoundly isolating.
But even though I couldn’t see a way out, and at times I believed there wasn’t one, in a seemingly faraway dimension – the dimension of Grace – I knew there was. And I knew its name.
Forgiveness…forgiveness…even if, even if I didn’t love myself anymore.
I didn’t love myself at all. Yet at some level I knew that only love could release me, and it would need to come in the form of forgiveness. I didn’t know how to begin, but thankfully the simple awareness of forgiveness as the way out morphed into an intention to forgive myself, and the intention inevitably nudged me onto the path of forgiveness.
All the things I thought I figured out, I have to learn again.
Once again Don Henley’s simple, honest words illuminate the truth. I had understood the need for forgiveness before; it had been made crystal clear to me in that earlier moment of Grace. But I hadn’t fully applied it to myself after that moment. I needed to learn it again, this time consciously and from the heart.
The path of forgiveness is the path of the heart.
I am still on that path. I am still learning what it really means to forgive myself, and what that looks like and feels like. Obviously it doesn’t mean condoning mistakes I make. It means looking right at them, and then looking right through them, to see the underlying cause.
It means seeing how deeply I have been hurt and misled by the false belief in my unworthiness – how deeply we all have been hurt and misled by false beliefs in unworthiness – and offering the kind of compassion to myself that I would so easily offer a friend or client.
It means understanding that, in the absence of a genuine release of self-condemnation and a willingness to love myself fully, any apology I offer or amends I make will arise from guilt, which only reinforces the feeling of unworthiness I am seeking to dissolve. Amends can only be made in love and through love.
The path of forgiveness also leads me to an understanding that not forgiving myself would be selfish. How could I possibly serve, support or help others if I’m swirling in a rabbit-hole of self-condemnation? I couldn’t.
I’ve long been a strong and vocal advocate for self-love, and for releasing ourselves from the pain of self-judgment, but these experiences, and those I’ve supported clients through, have taught me how imperative true self-forgiveness really is.
Forgiveness is the only sane path forward. The only path forward, period. In the absence of forgiveness, we remain lost in the illusion of unworthiness, with no way out. And in that illusion, we hurt ourselves and each other.
Remember, forgiving ourselves doesn’t mean condoning our mistakes. It means dissolving the cause of them. And it doesn’t mean lowering our standards. It means lifting them to the standards set by Love.
So let’s get to the heart of the matter. Let’s be willing to forgive ourselves, for real. Let’s practice learning from our mistakes with love, and loving ourselves forward from here.
Let’s help each other wake up to the glorious truth of our innate beauty, brilliance and worthiness.
Copyright © 2018
Suzanne E. Eder