By Nikki Rollo PhD, LMFT
I have chosen to shower myself in forgiveness. I have decided to bathe myself in absolutely breathtaking love- Alison Malee
We all make mistakes. Yep, It’s true. Every last one of us. We say things and do things that are hurtful to others and ourselves. It is one of the more difficult parts of being human. Then there are those situations where life happens in the complicated way it so often does and things go wrong, and then… we blame ourselves. We think if only we had tried harder, done better, watched what we said, made a different choice, and the list can go on and on and on, that things would have turned out better. We blame ourselves and we judge our pain.
If you can relate to this, first I want to let you know that you are not alone. Many people have struggled with these thoughts of self-blame for mistakes made or life happening out of one’s control. I am writing this blog because I too have struggled with this issue from taking more than my share of the blame when life threw me some challenges to having trouble forgiving myself for mistakes made.
Now, I want to be clear that it is super important to accept responsibility and ask forgiveness of others when it is needed. Developing a self-forgiveness practice does not exempt us from taking ownership of our choices and actions. When we make mistakes that hurt others or ourselves, it is key to the healing process to commit to do better next time. This feeling of remorse can keep us accountable. The experience of “feeling bad” or remorseful when we do something hurtful to someone else or ourselves can sometimes be a positive thing because it leads us to take action.
Which Direction Will Our Response Take Us?
The question then becomes: Which direction will we go? This action step can be toward making amends and generating more peace in our lives, or, this action can lead us closer toward shame and guilt.
If you are someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, the practice of self-forgiveness can be a challenge that may feel insurmountable. Eating Disorders are so often “shame-based” in the sense that shame is a central aspect to the development and maintenance of an eating disorder. Self-judgement and blame quickly become unrelenting forces when you are deep in the midst of the illness.
The Shame Cycle
Some of the thoughts you may be struggling with in the shame cycle are: how could I be so (fill in the blank)? Why didn’t I just keep my mouth closed? I should have never (fill in the blank). I am a bad person. I am unworthy of love because of the things I have done.
Then the next part of the cycle usually involves some kind of self-punishing behavior- like restricting, bingeing, or purging- which of course, may bring temporary relief, but also keeps us firmly in the grips of shame. This is quite different from the feeling of remorse that indicates we have strayed from our core values and need to make amends.
You can see how forgiving yourself can sometimes be more challenging than extending forgiveness to someone else. Just as we talked about in Part 1 of this blog, forgiveness does not mean forgetting the thing ever happened. In this case, it does not mean pretending you are perfect or that your actions don’t have consequences. Instead, it means that you recognize the limitations and messiness of the human experience. We all fall short and sometimes the standards or expectations we set for ourselves don’t take into account or give adequate grace for our humanity.
Self-Forgiveness in the Recovery Process
We know the recovery journey is filled with twists and turns. It isn’t linear and there will be bumps in the road. Those bumps come in various forms. They may come as a thought that starts a spiral of negative self-talk and beating ourselves up. It may come in the form of an action, where we engage in some kind of behavior that we said we were not going to do anymore. It may come in the form of a hurtful action taken against someone else.
So, how do we forgive ourselves and start to break the cycle of shame and self-blame in order for deep healing to occur?
Five Steps to Self-Forgiveness
- Finding the Balance
This is about finding balance between self-forgiveness and responsibility. This means determining what is yours and what is not yours. The feeling of “this is all my fault” is so often an illusion. It is important to explore the areas in which you need to accept responsibility and make amends, absolutely. It is equally important, as we are talking about self-forgiveness to explore the areas in which you may be self-blaming. Very often the reality is that life is full of imperfections and while your instinct might be to hold on to a belief that something should have been more in your control, life simply doesn’t work that way.
- Changing Your Language
Perhaps your instinct is to say something like “I’m just so stupid” or “I don’t deserve good relationships because I just mess them up”. Try catching this and changing the language to something more gentle such as, “I’m not stupid, I made a mistake” or “I deserve good relationships and I am going to work to make amends”. Tell the truth about what happened and the truth is that your mistakes don’t define you.
- Try on “Learning by Doing”
A mentor recently asked me how comfortable I was with learning by doing and then changing course if needed, rather than having to “get it right” the first time. That to me was a profound idea to sit with and explore. I like to think I am open to that, but the reality is, it is hard work to be open to “learning by doing”! Ask yourself how much grace you extend toward yourself to learn as you go. This means mistakes will be a part of it. Making mistakes means we are trying new things, living, taking risks and challenging ourselves to be more vulnerable. The key question for this practice is, “What did I learn and what might I do differently next time?”
- Make Amends
A part of self-forgiveness is about asking for forgiveness. In the recovery process we may leave hurt people in our path. In order to do some deep self-forgiveness work, we may need to start with creating an atmosphere of restoration for damaged relationships. It is important to recognize that making amends is more than just an apology and more than just clearing your own conscience. It takes the other person into primary consideration and might mean taking action to correct a situation. Here is a simple example: let’s say you borrowed and broke something that belonged to someone else. Instead of just saying, “Oops, sorry!” you would take action to replace the item. So in other words, you take action to repair the relationship and make a commitment to learn from what happened.
- Reach Out
If you are stuck in the “If Only” cycle and feel trapped by shame and self-blame, it is important to reach out for connection. This can be from a trusted family member or friend, or a therapist who is trained in helping people through these kinds of issues. It can be incredibly powerful to be in the presence of a non-judgmental accepting witness to explore self-blame, shame and moving toward the freedom of self-forgiveness.
If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder and looking for help, please reach out. Call us at Center for Change at 888.224.8250 and we can help you take the steps toward recovery and healing.