“Forgive yourself before you die, then forgive others.” This is a quote that comes to mind often when working with clients and in my own life as well. It’s a quote from one of my favorite books: Tuesdays With Morrie in which Morrie Schwartz, a dying retired professor, shares wisdom about how to fully live life even in the face of death. One of the great themes in Tuesdays With Morrie is that of forgiveness. “Forgive yourself before you die, then forgive others,” Morrie suggested.
Forgiveness is a really daunting task for many of us. You may have heard the expression, “failure to forgive someone else is like taking poison and expecting them to die.” It’s damaging to our spirit and to our psyche to hold onto grudges. It holds us in the past and keeps us from being fully present in the moment.
But what about when the person we need to forgive is ourselves? What if we have behaved in ways that we now regret? What if we’ve said things we can never take back? Or failed to act when we were needed the most by someone we loved? Many of us find that, with work, we are able to forgive other people but many of us struggle with or even refuse to think of forgiving ourselves.
The result is a heavy burden-a constant, pernicious sense of regret that seeps into our pores and weighs us down emotionally. It can be a wall that prevents us from being fully “seen” by those we love. Regret can often cause us to sabotage ourselves out of a deep belief that we are not worthy of love or joy. These regrets and their consequences are self-punishment for the wrongs we feel we’ve committed.
This self-punishment is the opposite of forgiveness. It involves holding on to:
Forgiveness is the most loving thing a person can offer or experience. To forgive is to recognize our humanity. It brings us back into the present and to where we are now- in this very moment. Forgiveness reminds us that we are wiser today than when we made poor choices in the past.
The challenge is to find the gift in this process: What beautiful thing does it say about you that you regret what happened? What beautiful thing does it mean about who you are now?
Steps to Forgiveness
1. Be clear about what happened. Without rewriting history, without taking on unnecessary responsibility, clearly look at what happened. Was there another way you COULD have handled it? What else was happening in your life at the time?
2. Take Responsibility Take responsibility for your part in the matter. Own up to what you did, failed to do, or what mess you created.
3. Make amends where possible. Apologize and let go of their response. The acceptance or denial of your apology doesn’t change your apology.
4. Be gentle with yourself. Remember that most of us do the best we know how to do in any given moment. Chances are, if you had better skills, if you were able to deal better with your emotions, perhaps you would have acted differently then. When we know better, we do better.
5. Let it go. Once you’ve examined the issue in all of its reality, assigned responsibility appropriately, accepted your own role, made amends and apologies where you can, then truly let go. Don’t keep revisiting it. No amount of self-punishment can change what happened. Let it go.
If you have trouble with any of these steps, reach out for help. A licensed therapist can help you to walk through the steps of self-forgiveness and help you to see that when you’re free of those burdens, you’ll be free to create a “lighter” and more compassionate life for yourself.