8 Challenges to Self-Forgiveness
Overcoming resistance on many fronts.
Posted Apr 05, 2020
"It's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody." –Maya Angelou
Forgiveness is a rare commodity. It's elusive, and when attained, hard-won. Self-forgiveness is even harder but offers redemption and liberation. The mere idea of forgiving oneself may evoke a punitive reaction. When one is convinced of being undeserving, wishing to feel better about oneself seems like a moral transgression—even for folks who adamantly believe others deserve compassion.
Many times, given a self-defeating side to our personality, we may find ourselves in relationships with others who cut us down. Rather than build one another up, as in a healthy relationship, there is competition over scarce emotional resources. We feel like there's not enough love to go around. It makes it hard to change, as mutual retaliation locks partners into the equilibrium of suffering.
When one partner discovers the need and heeds the call but the other does not, change is doubly hard. Forgiveness is an unforgivable crime, through this distorted lens. To the point, breaking out of the sadomasochistic orbit, weaning off of hostile dependency, takes serious effort and total dedication. Being equipped with general expectations is useful, preparing for the unexpected, and maintaining a stance of radical curiosity:
1. You will be seen as selfish. This is a tough one because you may actually have been “selfish” in ways you regret, are still working on, and nevertheless don’t want to beat yourself up forever over. Being convicted over and over again for the same old crime is too much. The tendency to conform to others’ expectations is particularly important to track here. Such projective identification, or role suction, can make positive change feel like walking through molasses. You do not have to feel bad about yourself to be a good person.
2. You may feel guilty. Like selfishness, guilt can be seductive; a well-deserved punishment. It can also feel like an unwanted guest who has long overstayed their welcome. Along with guilt comes self-recrimination, shame, and inner turmoil. Other people may think you should feel more guilty than you still do, pulling you down. People won’t always be pleased with your forgiveness.
3. You will doubt yourself. This adds up to a lot of second-guessing. Anxiety, unfamiliarity, and uncertainty in uncharted waters can lead to confusion and indecision. It’s very important to have your goal in mind, have paths toward that goal charted, be ready to experiment with course corrects, and have a sense of agency and the ability to get useful help when needed. Self-doubt, used properly, is a powerful ally.
4. You will face fears of loss. Self-forgiveness, and its close cousin self-compassion, entails cultivating a sense of gratitude for and generosity with oneself not previously there, at least not in obvious ways. The forgiving self is completely different from the blaming self. The brain network of blame activity is completely different and the world called forth is likewise different. This means the loss of the old ways, changes in patterns of relationship, and the loss of illusions of who one is, who others are, and how social reality works, emotionally and psychologically.
5. You may gain yourself. At face value, this seems on balance a good thing. Especially at first, it may feel too risky, false, or inauthentic. Fears of being an impostor can deter progress, ironically. It’s an experiment. While self-continuity is reassuring and bolsters resilience when the outside world is too chaotic—the willingness to prune off old ways of being and build bridges into the unknown means redesigning self-continuity. It also means adopting an experimental attitude toward life.
6. You may worry you are making a mistake. People make mistakes, and being perfectionistic is often outside of self-awareness, nevertheless gumming up the works. We tend to magnify mistakes, getting stuck on them, and discounting what we're getting right in ourselves and others. It’s important to soothe fight-flight reactions in order to stay present and on track.
7. Your friends will show their true colors. This is a bittersweet one, where you gain much in terms of deeper friendships, and learn to let go or rework relationships so you are with people where mutual respect and encouragement is the name of the game. Add loss of drama to the list of lost things. Reasonable people will at least be fine if you are working on self-forgiveness, and people who love you will celebrate.
8. Life will change in ways you can't fully anticipate. Loosen your grip but don't let go of the steering wheel. Loosening up efforts to control everyone and everything requires doing the trust exercise where you let yourself fall backward and catch yourself. People often try to change by figuring out how they are "supposed to be" and trying to act the part. When things really shift, though, there's a substantial element of surprise.
There are times when we are presented with more solitude, less hustle and bustle, and more time when everyday life is less demanding when we can settle into ourselves and what is most important to us.
Hard times make what's important stand out, as distraction gives way to boredom, and boredom presents the mind with possibilities. Be creative, be curious. The most effective way to lead is by example, and sometimes being "selfish" is the greatest gift we can give to others.
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