Why do we have a hard time forgiving ourselves? As I’ve thought about this question I’ve narrowed it down to three main reason. 1. Shame 2. An incorrect view of the experience or mistakes in general. 3. A misunderstanding of how we learn.
Shame is a different emotion than guilt. Guilt is actually a healthy emotion that helps us in our development. When we do something that goes against our own values or our divine nature, we feel guilty. This emotion is a message from the body to let us know we are not in line with our values. We can then correct the issue and move forward.
Shame on the other hand is a very unpleasant emotion. Shame is tied to how we want to be perceived by others. When we feel shame, it is due to us being afraid of what others will think of us. Shame, at its root, is a form of insecurity. Shame brings desires to hide the mistake, which is unhealthy since hiding the mistake doesn’t reconcile it. When we feel shame, stress hormones are produced that make it hard to see reality. This causes us to often make the mistake bigger than it actually is, and of course, brings a greater desire to hide the mistake. If we don’t reconcile the event and emotion, shame can lead to depression.
Feelings of shame make us feel like we can never be forgiven or that we’re not worthy of being forgiven. It can make us feel like our spouse, friends, coworkers, etc will not love us or will abandon us if they knew what we did. Thus, it becomes very difficult to make changes while we have shame. Remember, shame is completely based on insecurities.
These insecurities often come from how we view mistakes. I’ve found that more people than not have unhealthy beliefs when it comes to mistakes. Too often we see mistakes as something that defines us. If we messed up a sale, we must be a poor salesman. If we didn’t follow a health program the right way, it must not be for me. If we broke a rule of our faith, God must hate me. If a date didn’t go well, then we must be unlovable. If we lied to our spouse, we must be untrustworthy. And on and on. The problem with this viewpoint is it’s completely untrue.
A powerful characteristic of the brain is known as plasticity. This means the brain is moldable; our character, personality, habits, skills, etc. can be changed. In fact, our brains are constantly changing. The question is, though, are we directing the change or allowing circumstances to change us? But that’s a question for another day. The point is, from a physiological standpoint, you are not a fixed product. Although you made a mistake, doesn’t mean you are the mistake or that you will always make the same mistake.
We are incredibly blessed that our brains have this ability. Brain plasticity is what allows us to learn from a mistake. It’s what allows us to grow and progress. Something we often forget is that a principle we used as a child is still applicable no matter your age. It’s the principle of walking.
When we were children, we saw our parents, siblings, and others walking. So we wanted to walk too. We tried desperately many times before we even managed to stand on two feet. Even when we got on two feet, we fell countless times before we could walk. And once we learned to walk, then we later learned to run. Everything in life is just like walking; you will fall from time to time until you get it right.
Nothing about making mistakes is necessarily pleasant, at least not in the moment, but it’s necessary for growth. If we never made mistakes then we’d never learn. In fact, we’d still just be lying down on our backs, unable to walk.
If you are having a hard time forgiving yourself, there’s a good chance you have built up some shame regarding the experience. Shame is the biggest obstacle to us forgiving ourselves. Remember, at the root of shame are the beliefs we have regarding mistakes and our ability to change. Allow me to offer some suggestions for reconciling it.
Talk with someone you trust- Telling someone you trust can help relieve the burden, especially since you’ve most likely been hiding the mistake. Often times the person can help put things into perspective; we’re usually too stressed to see things clearly.
Reframe your view on the experience and mistakes in general- This is basically the bulk of what we talked about already, but other ways to do this include asking the right questions. Avoid questions like, “Why am I so stupid?” Instead ask questions like, “What can I learn from this?”, “How can this make me a better person?”
Follow the impressions- Your body knows what it needs to bring itself back into homeostasis (back in balance). Undoubtedly, you’ve had impressions, or little thoughts, of things you should do. This could be talking with a friend, confessing your mistake to a particular person, offering service, or making some sort of amends with someone. Whatever it is, follow through on it. Every time I follow through on an impression, I always feel better.
Cognitive Therapi- We’ve talked about this a few times, but I highly recommend our Cognitive Therapi program and podcast. It’ll help you reconstruct your beliefs into something healthier and provide some great education and tools for helping to reconcile stress, shame, and other unpleasant emotions.
As we look back on mistakes, let’s remember that we are all learning. Mistakes are part of life, but they’re not what defines us. We all have divinity and light in us. As we learn from our mistakes, more of that light shines and we grow wiser and more empathetic. We start seeing others with more love and less judgement. We see our past mistakes as nothing more than a child learning to walk.