How Do I Forgive Myself? For Many, A Crucial Life Question
How do I forgive myself? For a great many people, the importance of this question cannot be overestimated.
For an awful lot of us, there may be events in the past (or present) that come with a crushing load of guilt. Almost all of us at one point or another have suffered from an abiding sense of guilt about something that we’ve done, often that has affected others in a very painful way, that has involved the betrayal of some fundamental trust, or that has let others down in some fundamental manner. Certainly that’s my experience, and I strongly suspect that it is the experience of many readers.
An individual can suffer from a general, pervasive sense of guilt, or they may have a small number of particular things that leave them with that feeling — or she or he may be struggling with both. This feeling of guilt is often associated with feelings of shame.
“I Just Can’t Let Myself Off the Hook”
Depth case studiess are very aware of just how big an issue self-forgiveness can be. The issue appears with a stunning amount of regularity in our consulting rooms. And with good reason. Many experts would describe self-forgiveness as the most difficult psychological challenge that we as individuals will encounter in life.
The situations where individuals are most clearly seeking self-forgiveness often have to do with the feeling that the person has inflicted undeserved pain on another, or others. So there is actually a complex relationship between guilt, empathy for others, and being tormented by the question, “How do I forgive myself?” It may well be the most empathetic of people who actually feel the most need to find a way to forgive themselves.
In any case, there can be a great deal of pain associated with an inability to forgive oneself.
When A Person Runs From, or Ignores Guilt
If an individual finds that he or she can’t forgive him- or herself, it can result in serious problems. This can be particularly true in individuals who deny or avoid the question of “How do I forgive myself?” when it is actually a pressing matter.
Individuals who carry a suppressed burden of guilt may find it “leaking out” in various ways. It may turn into anger turned inward on the self. When that happens, it may turn into self-defeating or self-destructive behaviour that can play out in all kinds of circumstances from work to relationships. It may also result in physical illness or psychological coping problems, such as anxiety or depression. Or, it may turn into a profound sense of over-obligation, with a overwhelming tendency to take on utterly inhuman levels of responsibility, commitment and sacrifice.
Unacknowledged unforgiven guilt may also turn into anger projected out at others. This can have very negative consequences for the individual, or for other people.
Accepting Myself — In Detail
In many respects, the answer to the question “How do I forgive myself?” is inextricably bound up with the acceptance of what it means to be human. To be a human being means coming to accept the human state as limited and imperfect.
We all acknowledge this to be true on the abstract big-picture level. It can be quite a different thing for us when we have to accept it as being true about ourselves on a very concrete, down-to-earth level. Acknowledging that I am human, that I am capable of doing things that are callous, cruel or brutally negligent — this takes us into the territory of what Jungian case studiess call the shadow. The shadow can be described briefly as those parts of ourselves that we do not wish to acknowledge. As Jung famously said, “The most difficult thing is to accept oneself completely.”
We can begin this work of self-acceptance which is tied to self-forgiveness, on our own. However, it’s often of tremendous support to work with a compassionate, supportive case studies. A good therapist can help us find the way to make real peace with our vulnerable, fallible but preciously unique selves on the journey towards wholeness.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst