In my previous blog post on self-forgiveness ("Healing Your Shame and Guilt Through Self-Forgiveness," dated June 1, 2017), I attempted to help readers, especially survivors of child abuse, to forgive themselves for actions they had taken that caused harm to others. The primary message of the post was that self-forgiveness is one of the most powerful steps we can take to rid ourselves of debilitating shame. I encouraged survivors, in particular, to take the trauma-sensitive stance of framing many “symptoms” as understandable attempts to cope with or adapt to overwhelming circumstances. More specifically, there is a focus on helping survivors recognize that many of the behaviors they are most critical of in themselves (and are criticized for by others) are actually coping mechanisms or attempts at self-regulation.
Examples of such coping strategies include:
- Efforts to cope with high levels of anxiety (e.g. smoking, drinking, self-harm.
- Behaviors that are the result of self-soothing deficits (alcohol and drug abuse)
From a trauma-sensitive perspective, survivors are doing the best they can at any given time to cope with the life-altering and frequently shattering effects of trauma.
In this post, I focus on helping you to forgive yourself, but this time around the issue of harm you have caused yourself. This is as important as forgiving yourself for the harm you have brought to others. This includes the harm you have done to your body due to:
- excessive drinking, drugs, cigarettes
- overeating or eating unhealthy foods
- purging and bingeing
- having unprotected sex or promiscuous sex.
Forgive yourself for all these things and anything else you did to yourself that harmed you. You didn’t love and respect your body because of the massive amounts of shame you carried. You hated your body because it was a source of pain and shame. You starved your body because you had been starved of love, nurturing, and proper care when you were a child. You attacked your body because others had attacked it and you felt that this was what it deserved. You were reckless with your body because no one had cherished it when you were growing up. Forgive yourself.
Forgive yourself for the things you did that damaged your spirit, your image of yourself, and your integrity. For example, forgive yourself for overspending or stealing, for losing the family’s house due to gambling debts, for prostituting yourself, for having sex with married people, for having sex with people you despised, for engaging in sex acts that felt repulsive or disgusting to you.
Often the harm you have caused yourself is more subtle than the obvious harm you did to your body or your self-image. In It Wasn’t Your Fault: Healing the Shame of Child Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion I touched upon some of these things:
- pushing people away that loved you
- not believing in yourself
- being too hard on yourself
- setting unreasonable expectations of yourself
You need to forgive yourself for these things too. At the time, you didn’t know better. You were doing the best you could. You were doing what you had been taught to do.
You pushed people away because you were afraid to trust; you didn’t believe you deserved to be loved.
You didn’t believe in yourself because no one had believed in you as you were growing up.
As I discussed extensively throughout It Wasn’t Your Fault, you may have been too hard on yourself because your parents and other caregivers were too critical of you and had unreasonable expectations of you. Forgive yourself.
And there are even more subtle ways that you have harmed yourself that you need to forgive yourself for. Forgive yourself for being misunderstood so often by other people, and by yourself. You were misunderstood because there were layers of shame between you and other people, layers of shame that hid you from others, shame that prevented you from being yourself, from saying what you really meant, acting the way you really wanted to; layers of shame that made you look one way when you really felt another way; layers of shame that made you say one thing when you really meant another. Forgive yourself for being misunderstood. It was the last thing you wanted. You wanted people to know the real you and to be accepted for who you are. You wanted your feelings and your perceptions validated. You wanted to be seen and heard. Forgive yourself for not knowing how to show people who you really are and for not knowing how to express yourself in the way that others could understand the real you.
Exercise: Self-Forgiveness Letter
Write a letter asking yourself for forgiveness. Include all the ways you have harmed yourself, including ways that you have neglected your body and ways that you have treated yourself like your parents or abusers treated you. Also include ways you have harmed yourself by being too hard on yourself and harm you caused yourself by pushing other people away or because of behaviors that were misunderstood by others.
Don’t expect yourself to write this letter in one sitting. It may take several days or even weeks to complete it. Take your time and really consider the many ways you have harmed yourself.
As you write, bring up all the self-compassion you can muster. If you begin to feel self-critical, stop writing. Either do one of the other self-compassion exercises in It Wasn’t Your Fault or re-read a portion of the book that will remind you of why you acted the way you did (e.g. the Self-Understanding chapter). Then go back to your letter with self-compassion in your heart and mind.
Forgiving yourself will do more for you in terms of healing your shame than almost anything you can do. Instead of blaming yourself for your efforts to manage traumatic reactions, begin to recognize the adaptive function of your symptoms. For example, drinking and other forms of substance abuse often arise out of a former victim’s efforts to cope with high levels of anxiety—anxiety that can sometimes be intolerable. Recognizing this and having compassion for yourself will be the first and most significant step toward change. Once you have accomplished this, you can then focus on learning strategies that help you feel more comforted and in control, such as writing in a journal, taking a warm bath, applying a cool washcloth to your forehead, or practicing grounding exercises or deep breathing—all of which can help with self-soothing deficits.