Updated: Aug 3, 2021
In this new series, we will be exploring how we relate to ourselves, and how we can move from self-loathing to self-love. The best place to start seems to be forgiving ourselves.
So often, we hold onto things that happened in the past that we can't quite move on from. Things that we may have done that we are now too afraid to look at or examine, and that cause us pain that lies below the surface of our everyday lives.
We carry guilt and shame from our past around with us. They are powerful emotions that don't feel particularly nice to experience, so we turn away from them and force them beneath the surface, never quite dealing with them. Eventually, we internalize these emotions and begin to believe that we are inherently bad people. This eats away at our self-worth, and we begin to believe that we are not worthy of care, love, and a multitude of other things. Problems with self-forgiveness can ultimately lead to eating disorders, substance abuse, and severe mental health problems.
This normally begins with an action that causes us to feel guilty. Experiencing guilt is a normal part of being human, it lets us know when we have done something that doesn’t align with our values. We all make mistakes. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t learn from them, and we wouldn’t have any motivation to improve ourselves or our behavior. Mistakes make for great personal growth opportunities. However, too often, we see mistakes instead as a sign of personal and/or moral failure.
Shame is when we internalize our mistakes and trick ourselves into believing that because we have done something "bad" we are a "bad person" overall. Sometimes we take on shame from others when it isn’t even warranted (such as shame for being female, a minority, or not having a 'perfect body'). This type of shame is not something that we can control or that we caused by our own actions...but it is still important for us to recognize that we do not have to buy into societal beliefs about our worth.
When it comes to hurts that were caused by our actions, we tend to rationalize or justify why we have hurt others in order to avoid those terrible dogging feelings of guilt and shame...but they still lurk beneath the surface. We might attempt to "forgive" ourselves so that we can bypass doing any personal work and absolve ourselves of any and all blame. But this does those we have harmed no good, and because we don't take any responsibility for our actions and examine how we might do better next time, we don't experience any personal growth.
We can learn to realize that bad actions don't make us bad people...we can take action to release that shame and move on. However, a healthy amount of guilt is good to have in our lives to remind us that we’re on the right track. Again, it is like a little alarm that goes off when we have gone against our own personal values. It's an important emotion to have and to work with in an intentional way.
So, how do we go about forgiving ourselves?
Instead of running from guilt and shame, learn to sit with the discomfort. It is better to feel them strongly in the short term than to carry them around constantly in the long-term. As we have learned, there can be real health risks involved when we chose the latter.
Recognize what brings up feelings of guilt or shame for you. Were these situations consequences of your actions, or is it an embedded shame simply bestowed upon you by others? Release what you are not responsible for and what you cannot control. That weight isn't yours to carry!
As for everything else, take responsibility for your actions. Don’t play the blame game or try to justify or rationalize why you did wrong. Try to take ownership of things that, knowing what you know now, you believe you could have done differently. Recognize who you have hurt and how it impacted them, as well as you.
Yoga can help us here as we practice ahimsa, or non-harming. If we hold ahimsa as a deeply held personal value, then guilt will tell us when we have crossed a boundary or violated this value. Taking time on the mat or meditation cushion can help us to turn our attention inwards and sort out complicated emotions such as these. Emotions are often stored within the body in the form of physical tension. In releasing this tension, we can also help to release the emotions that go along with them.
Make amends. Is there anyone you need to apologize to or make amends with? Showing others that you have recognized how your actions have affected them can help them to move forward in their pain, and help you to release any guilt you hold as well. It doesn’t always have to be an apology (sometimes an apology just doesn’t fix things).
You could take some small action to “balance the scale” as it were...do something that will make a positive difference for others, and that action will help you with personal growth. Even if we get forgiveness from others, it is easy to feel undeserving and difficult to release the weight of shame or guilt. But it is doing us no good if we have done all we can to make amends, yet still carry it around with us.
We can relate this process of making amends to the idea of karma. Karma is thought to be the seeds of action that create change in ourselves and in the world around us. The more good we can do, the better you will feel. However, the opposite is also true...the more you hold on to these negative experiences, the more you will unconsciously repeat unhealthy patterns.
Be empathetic. Sometimes we can have a tendency to use self-forgiveness to quickly wipe away all blame, and avoid being held accountable for our actions. This removes how the consequences of our actions affected others and ourselves from the equation. Try to simultaneously hold compassion for those you have hurt, but also the version of you that was hurting enough to cause that pain. Ask them about their experience, how your actions affected them, and how you might have done things differently. Get their side of the story.
Working with the anahata (heart) chakra can help us to open our minds and hearts to others and to cultivate a sense of loving kindness. The more compassion we have for others, the more likely we are able to extend compassion to ourselves.
Reflect. Reflect on your past experiences and think about how you might do things differently knowing what you know. Think of situations that might come up in the future where you could apply what you've learned. Remind yourself that you don't need to keep repeating old patterns, and that you know that those patterns don't serve you well. Forgive yourself for not knowing better, and when you have the opportunity, do better.
This relates to the concept of svadhyaya, or self-study. This is an ongoing process for all yogis, a study of what it means to be human and to be our unique selves. This self-reflection can help us to recognize unhealthy internal patterns, so that when they arise again, we can consciously choose a new direction.
Self-forgiveness is not easy, and it’s an ongoing process. When you feel guilt or shame, try to lean in and ask yourself why...and if blame on yourself is warranted, or if you need to take responsibility for your actions. If the guilt is a result of your actions, own up, apologize or make amends, empathize, and resolve to do better. This process gets easier and more automatic with time and practice, and you’ll grow as a person and make better connections with those around you as you continue on your journey of understanding the self.
Do you feel that you carry guilt and shame around too often?
Are there things that you feel society has shamed you about that are out of your control?
Let me know in the comments, I would love to discuss!