How to Forgive Ourselves
As best as we may try and plan for the future, the fact remains that life is full of uncertainty. While many of us wish we could prepare for every possible scenario, uncertainty plays an important role in our life. It places us in uncomfortable situations and exposes our inexperience and fears. This often leads us through the doorway of mistakes. At the end of the day however, mistakes are an important part of life. Without them it is impossible to learn and grow.
While each of us likely understands that concept at an intellectual level, why is it difficult to apply in our own lives? What is it that makes it hard to forgive ourselves and truly let go – especially when those mistakes hurt others? I thought this would be an important topic as I’m sure there are a number of people who harbor some measure of guilt or insecurity due to prior shortcomings or transgressions.
The body is built to heal
Before moving forward, it’s important to note and appreciate the creation that is our body. Think about the process that takes place with something as simple as a cut on our finger. As soon as the cut occurs, blood rushes to the affected area to disinfect. The blood coagulates and creates a temporary barrier to keep toxins, bacteria and other agents from entering the body. The damage initiates inflammation, which in turn causes immune cells to attack foreign substances that may have entered the body. The immune system conducts further due diligence, scanning the area impacted to see which cells are repairable, and which ones need to be replaced. While pain and discomfort initially accompany the healing process, new skin eventually grows. During the healing process the brain also gets involved, creating endorphin neurotransmitters that act as analgesics to reduce pain.
All of the activity required to heal a cut occurs because the cells affected relay very specific information to the brain regarding the exact details of the injury. In return, the brain releases a specific set and quantity of biochemicals that act as messengers in different parts of the body to initiate a very precise plan for healing.
While this process is something we take for granted, it’s quite remarkable when we realize we don’t have to consciously initiate the healing process on our own – our bodies are hardwired to start it.
Similarly, our body is hardwired to recognize and heal damage to the mind. That’s because we’re hardwired to know the difference between right and wrong. Research shows that even babies as young as 3 months have a built in moral core. Throughout the course of our lives that hard-wiring can be strengthened or weakened, however our hardwired moral compass serves as a template to guide us. If we allow it to, it can lead us to changes in our thoughts, behaviors and character so that we live happier, more fulfilling lives.
Guilt – part of the healing process
When we’ve made a mistake the thoughts and actions that led us to break our moral codes and rules creates cognitive incoherence. Within one thousandth of a second our brain releases biochemicals to initiate the healing process. Because of the strength of the neural circuitry involved with morality, we feel emotions such as guilt or remorse. It’s very important to realize these emotions are designed with the intent to help us recognize mistakes and make changes; they’re intent is to guide us to a path of healing and cultivate our character. They’re intent is not to bog us down or depress.
That said, keep in mind that healing is never comfortable. We’ve all experienced the discomfort and pain that accompany guilt. This pain however, is an important part of the process; not any different than the discomfort we feel as our bodies heal and recover from physical injury. To put this in perspective, whether the source of our pain is physical or mental – the same region of our brain is activated to communicate to us that “this hurts.”
Although the body will automatically initiate the healing process, actions are required in order for the body to properly heal. For example, if we cut ourselves, we need to keep the infected area clean; otherwise we run the risk of infection. Once the scab develops we have to allow the time required for the body to regenerate healthy cells. This requires time – we can’t simply rip the scab off as soon as it appears and expect full regeneration.
Mental healing is no different. Guilt is the body’s way of telling us to take action and make changes in our lives. You may be wondering why we have to undergo something as painful as guilt. Unfortunately, without an emotion as strong as guilt, our minds would stay on auto-pilot and not make the concerted effort required to step outside of ourselves to try and see the bigger picture. As we understand what these emotions mean, and respond through realigning our thoughts to the moral code we’ve created within our neural circuitry, we’re able to bring our brain and body back into a state of homeostasis.
How to find healing and forgive ourselves
This entire emotional response provides us with an opportunity to step back and reconcile our thoughts and our behavior. It’s important to note however, that the process of reconciling ourselves can be blocked when we allow stress to interfere with the healing mechanism. Under these circumstances, circuitries in our brain compete with our desire to realign our thoughts and behavior with our moral code.
For example, we may fear our mistake will put us in a place of exclusion. This can lead us down a mental path where we begin to project the future and tell ourselves stories of how disconnected we’ll be from those we care about, should they uncover our mistake. As humans, connectivity is extremely important. Telling ourselves these kinds of stories can create internal conflict on what to do as competing networks of neurons fight for dominance. If we succumb to thoughts that are not based on facts and reality, feelings of guilt can easily shift into much a much stronger emotions. Guilt can easily be converted into shame, embarrassment and even depression. We may in turn seek for an easy remedy, such as trying to find justification for our original transgression. Unfortunately, justification further disconnects our thoughts and actions from our hard wired moral code, creating additional stress and compounding the feelings of strong, negative emotions.
The path to healing begins by recognizing the importance of following the hardwired moral code that we’re all born with. We cannot seek to justify or blame others for our own shortcomings. Additionally, we must learn to trust and follow our conscious. If we feel the inclination to ask confess our mistakes and ask forgiveness, it’s very important that we do so. We must learn to trust and follow our conscious.
It’s also important to embrace the fact that feelings of guilt are part of the process. We’ve become a society accustomed with a quick fix. When it comes to matters of healing, there is no such thing. True mental healing and forgiving one’s self requires time and sincere introspection. Instead of dwelling on the emotions we feel when we make mistakes, we need to redirect our focus on the message our body is trying to tell us through those emotions. In doing so it’s critical that we don’t magnify the emotion itself, as this leads to negative or corrosive thinking.
As we work on being introspective during the healing process, the brain will release endorphins to reduce the pain; the brain will also produce benzodiazepine to make sure feelings of anxiety stay under control. These chemicals are released to provide us the time needed to take action, make changes and redirect our thoughts. All that said, it’s important that we don’t procrastinate taking the action needed for us to find full reconciliation and personal forgiveness. The emotions we feel when we make mistakes are stored in the limbic area of our brain. They will stay filed there until we’ve completed all of the changes necessary for healing. Until then, the emotions will remain filed to serve as a reminder that we have pending business that requires our attention. The longer we procrastinate, the longer pain lingers and our chances of falling into very negative emotions, such as depression, increases.
Mental healing and physical healing have a lot in common. In the case of a cut, deciding to ignore it puts us in a position where we risk infection and potentially serious damage to tissues, nerves, bone or joints. What begins as an initial cut in our hand or foot can spread and affect many other parts of our body if we ignore it.
The same holds true for cognitive healing as well. If we procrastinate, other regions of the brain are affected, creating problems which impact the brain’s chemistry and structure. When the brain’s chemistry is impacted several problems arise, such as changes in brain function. When changes in brain’s chemistry and function occur, every part of the body is impacted, including the body’s molecular and genetic environment. These changes can cause genes to express themselves in ways that can lead to the development of various chronic diseases and illnesses.
On the other hand, if we learn to reconcile our behavior and align ourselves with our conscious and hard wired moral code, our brains and minds can be at peace – which in turn allows us to forgive ourselves (and others). This allows our brain to function in a healthy state, providing our bodies the ability to remain in a state of homeostasis and health.