Self-Forgiveness is Not as Easy as it Looks



I am on the Worship Committee at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. Our theme this month is forgiveness. As a worship associate, one of my tasks is to write a 3 to 5 minute reflection on the week’s theme. I decided to tackle the topic of self-forgiveness for my reflection. It truly felt like a full-body assault as I sorted through stories to share and thought about my own history of wrestling with self-forgiveness. I will be honest, I find it much easier to forgive others than to forgive myself.

So, I did what I often do when struggling with writing or looking for instant distraction, I turned to Google for inspiration. Google politely informed me that there are 32 million results related to the topic of self-forgiveness. Wow, guess I am not the only one who often feels like the quarterback, getting sacked by my own mistakes and buried under a pile of stories that feel heavier than an NFL linebacker.

What did all these experts have to say about how one should forgive oneself?

Here are just a few examples of headlines and I didn’t even make it to the 2nd page:

  • How to Forgive Yourself: 9 Steps (With Pictures)
  • Self Forgiveness is Essential for Healing
  • The Art of Self Forgiveness
  • The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself (as if there is an unhealthy way?)
  • Even the Huffington Post weighed in with the bold title Self Forgiveness
  • Learning to Forgive yourself
  • and finally, What Does the Bible Say about Forgiving Self?

Oh my, where to start, I asked myself. Why with the pictures, of course, I said, still looking for silly distractions rather than facing the defensive line of my personal team of demons. Surprisingly, I found the article with the pictures the most insightful and easy to follow. I appreciated the 9 steps on learning to forgive myself. I am going to share a couple of the steps with you along with my personal struggle to reach a state of being where I am free of guilt, judgement and criticism.

Step 1 says Practice self-acceptance. Okay, so in all honesty, my first thought was Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live sharing his daily affirmations: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me! It’s hard to stand in front of the mirror and smile at ourselves and acknowledge that we are enough of whatever. For me personally, as the years have gone by adding more character lines to my face and more pounds to my hips, I have to work harder than ever at seeing myself through loving eyes. For me self-acceptance is a practice – day to day and moment to moment paying attention to the negative and often harsh criticism that I turn on myself, words I would never ever say to another human being. Why then is it okay to say them to myself?

Perhaps Step 2 will help me further along this journey of self-acceptance. It would be nice to run the ball the full length of the field without having to dodge so many obstacles, wouldn’t it? Step 2 is understanding the importance of forgiveness. Being a lover of words, self-help books and holding onto the conviction that I am fatally flawed… I thought, aha! Maybe I just don’t understand why forgiveness matters. But that’s not the truth. The truth is that I DO know what it feels like when I release anger, hurt, worry, fear and judgement – I feel freer, lighter, less-stressed, more creative – more ME!

Step 5 asks me to reflect on why I am holding myself to a higher standard than anyone else around me, gulp, that’s a big one… According to my mom, I have always pushed myself harder than she or anyone else ever pushed me. I have high expectations for achievement and for success – I am not competitive in the traditional sense. In spite of my football analogy, I could care less who wins the big game on Sunday, I could care less if I win a board game against my kids and I have never been driven to compete against others – but I do compete against myself and push myself relentlessly to do more, to do better. Like Smalley, I want to be liked, I want to be appreciated for my gifts and seen for who I am yet I am the last one to notice how well I am doing.

In step 8, the authors offer suggestions for actions you can take to confirm and acknowledge progress in the self-forgiveness process. As I read them, I laughed. I often worry that my daily life looks like what you would find in a self-help manual on forgiveness:

  • Take up meditation – check
  • Affirm your self-worth – check (well okay, this is a work in progress but I am making progress)
  • Keep a diary – check
  • Seek therapy – been there done that, check
  • If you have a faith, draw strength from it’s teachings… yep, looked at all of them, will take whatever help they have to offer, so check!

I will acknowledge here that I am making progress. I may not look in the mirror every day with total appreciation of what I see, but I can look without judging and being hateful. I don’t beat myself up every time I snap at one of the kids or my husband, I just apologize and start again. I don’t stay awake at night feeling guilty for a long laundry list of self-judgement: why did I have that extra glass of wine, darn, should have called my mom today I am such a bad daughter, shouldn’t have bought that jacket at Macy’s, I didn’t need it… this litany of criticism used to run my life but what I have learned (thanks to therapy and a library of self-help books) is that I am the quarterback of my own emotional team.

I am on the offense, not the defense, I am tackling each judgement as it arises. Which, I find, is what step 9 in that article with the pictures reminds me to do – to see forgiveness as a journey, not a destination. It took me 48 years to reach this point in my life and create all the stories, pack all the baggage and read all those self-help books. Have you ever noticed that when there is a fumble on the football field that everyone piles on top of the guy on the bottom and it takes time to untangle all the arms and legs to figure out who really has the ball? Rather than blaming myself for every fumble, I am going to pick myself up and go back to the starting line, ready to try again. Forgiveness has no timetable – all I can do is be aware of the slip-ups and focus on bringing myself back to center, time after time.




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  1. Elizabeth Scala on October 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm

    Great post, wonderful concepts in this article. And great website, by the way.

    I find the steps you share useful and insightful. Step 5 is the one I am most challenged by and will reflect on this week. Why do I hold myself to such standards? Can I let go of being hard on myself?

    Step 9 is the most interesting. When we look at our experiences as part of the journey, instead of the outcome we make the most progress.

    Thank you! Elizabeth

    • minette on October 22, 2013 at 3:33 pm

      Thanks Elizabeth, loved your reply and your insights!

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