(This comes from a past newsletter article but I thought it was still timely and worth re-posting)
I have had the privilege of hearing many stories of hurt and pain over the thirty years of being a psychologist. I call this a privilege because of the trust that people have bestowed on me in allowing me to hear their inner most sufferings and secrets. I’ve walked beside people as they struggled to let go of the past that has hurt them so much and more towards forgiveness of family and others that have been the root of this pain. Many times I have witnessed a stumbling block that arises in this process when what was really needed was for the person to let go of the inner voices that continued to tell them that they were unlovable, not worthy or imperfect in some way. For many of them, it was harder to forgive their own selves then it was to forgive the person who hurt them on the outside.
I believe there are several reasons for this. One is that we are lead to believe that if we forgive ourselves, especially too easily, that we are just avoiding accountability or responsibility for our actions. We are making excuses for our behavior and will not be open to changing our behavior in the future. Self-forgiveness, or the ability to love oneself unconditionally, can be seen as narcissism which is equated with selfishness. We all live in the fear of being labeled with this “personality defect.”
Another factor that blocks our ability to forgive is the secret fear that we are in fact unlovable or worthless in our core. “If someone truly knew me, they would know how worthless I am.” This fear may come from confusion between the feelings of guilt and shame. Guilt, an emotion that helps us to know when we have done something wrong or not done something we should have done, is a normal warning signal to examine our behavior and make corrections. Shame is “an inner sense of being completely diminished or insufficient as a person…A pervasive sense of shame is the ongoing premise that one is fundamentally bad, inadequate, defective, unworthy, or not fully valid as a human being.”
It is the latter emotion, shame, which leaves us feeling trapped, as it is impossible to atone for our very being.
We all need to feel lovable and worthy as human beings. While we are willing to bestow this basic characteristic on others, our own inner critic often rises up to remind us where we have fallen short, are not perfect or have failed to please others. This negative voice may be one that we have internalized from parents or others who have been critical of us in the past. These voices may come from those who have been abusive to us in the past. The really sad thing is that this criticalness may also have come from the parent’s good intentions to help us be the best we can be. Additionally, religion can be a voice that has led to a harsh internal judgmental when we fail to meet the moral standards that we profess to believe.
Spirituality and spiritual practices can be a great aid in the steps towards healing our brokenness. When we are able to let God (or whatever we call our Higher Power) bathe us in love and grace, we begin to get a sense of being created whole and lovable. Believing in the forgiveness that God gives and the unconditional love shown to us each day through creation helps us to know that God truly loves us. We all make mistakes; being human means that we have faults and can learn from our failures. We need to trust in our basic goodness and our potential to move towards wholeness, which is really what is meant by perfection.
Self-forgiveness is a slow process of pealing back our layers of façade that we have assumed to cover those areas of which we are ashamed. We need to look at the areas where we try hard to please, produce and perform and expose our vulnerability and desire to be loved. The shame that we have taken on grows in the dark. It is only by exposing our secrets to the light of truth that we can let go of shame and gently move to reclaiming our authentic self: the beautiful person we were created to be. To release our shame we need to name it; first to ourselves and then to another trusted person. A soul companion or a spiritual director can help us along this path of honesty and courage. They help us create a safe space in which to remove the masks we wear.
Again, this process, like the one to forgive others, takes time and courage. The important thing is to choose to begin, to gather the resources to help you with the journey and wisely chose someone to companion you on the way. It is harder to do this work on your own as you can be your own worst critic. A trusted companion can help you put the inner voices to rest. They can help you discern where you need to change your behavior due to guilt and where you need to let go of residual shame. Remember that you are the Beloved child of God whose desire it is that you become all you were created to be. Shame does not aid in this but is a large road block to it. Step into the light, expose the shame and be healed.