Self-forgiveness starts with an apology

Self-forgiveness starts with an apology

Saying I’d changed wasn’t enough – I needed to prove it to myself.

A year ago I did something that I really shouldn’t have done.

Despite a tight feeling in my chest that I should have realized was my body signalingyou shouldn’t do this“, I did it anyhow.

That tight feeling in my chest is now a familiar friend, who is with me for many hours a day.

There are other friends that started to appear and now stay with me and visit daily – panic attacks, anxiety, despair, insomnia, headaches, muscle pain, anger, sadness, tears, fatigue, fear…

One action left unaddressed causes the heart and mind to go on a journey. Starting by navigating through denial and rationalizations, these eventually give way to full on guilt. Guilt in turn grows and expands into shame.

Once shame has taken hold, then a single mistake has parasitically multiplied into a grey cloud that darkens your entire life. Slowly but surely, sadness, remorse, and regret stepped up and took over the functioning of my brain as I slipped into a world of severe depression and anxiety.

Guilt over a mistake, left unhealed, turns a cut into an infected and festering wound. Healing this wound and resolving shame involves a lot of work. “If only…” type thoughts tempt to distract the mind, but healing requires acceptance that the wound is there now and there is no going back to the past to avoid it getting this bad. 

The longer that the shameful situation goes on (perpetuated by denial, secrecy and lying) the more work there will be to do. It is imperative to continue struggling despite your mental state. Indeed, the less action that is taken due to avoidance by “what if” thoughts, self-pity, and self-destructive behaviors like drinking, the longer recovery will take. Or, really, even begin in the first place.

Anyhow, Next are some ideas for what to do if you have allowed shame to set up shop.

Steps involve in overcoming shame (one perspective, outlined in an article on psychology today here):

  1. Ending the situation and creating as much distance from it as possible.
  2. Doing anything and everything possible to make reparations (apology and/or “fix” the mess).
  3. Changing oneself to become a better person.

Without realizing the motivations were based on shame, I became obsessed with these three things over the last year. Having these urges while also experiencing high levels of stress from other areas in my life and terrible grief from a serious of personal losses made the task at hand more confusing and difficult.

In the end, I did all of these things. Taking responsibility and removing myself from the shameful situation despite incredible pain and loss, doing anything I could in desperation to make reparations for the damage I’d caused, and finally by becoming determined to change. Changing to become a better person required me to act on my personal changes and have them become habit before I could believe it myself and have confidence I’d actually changed – saying I’d changed wasn’t enough – I needed to prove it to myself.

Another step to resolving shame and the losses associated is self-forgiveness. Forgiving myself truly and believing it has been an extremely difficult task. Admitting to myself what I’d done and for what reasons was hard enough. Accepting the losses that arose from my own deliberate actions was painful. Self-forgiveness is difficult, because even if you try, you can read your own mind and you know that you don’t really forgive yourself.

I tried telling myself things like:

  • “You fucked up, but you won’t do it again”
  • “I forgive myself”
  • “I can’t offer anything to anyone if I keep playing the victim in my own head – I need to stand up!”
  • “The past is the past – I need to focus on what I can do in the present”

But all of these felt hollow, because I knew I didn’t really forgive myself – I was still angry and disgusted with myself for what I’d done and what it had caused me to lose.

Then I realized that I had deeply and genuinely apologized to the people whom I had hurt, but I hadn’t thought to apologize to myself.

It turned out to be a necessary step.

A genuine – “Sam, I am so sorry for what I did. I am so sorry for what happened. If I could do anything to take it back or make it better, I would.”

It felt soothing and relieving to hear me apologize to myself – like my past self was apologizing to my present self.

Presented with a genuine apology, I had the opportunity to genuinely forgive. To feel compassion and understanding at the mistakes and pain that the past Sam had made and endured. I could understand that he always tried his best, he always had good intentions and love in his heart, but simply lacked the knowledge of how to act in his own and everyone’s best interest.

He was alone in a confusing situation with no one to guide him out. He struggled, but never gave up. He never once intentionally did something to hurt anyone and always fought for love and compassion in the best way he knew how.

I felt his pain and remorse, and I forgave him.

Forgiveness was possible because I am such a different person today that while I can vaguely remember being the Sam of a year ago, I cannot imagine how I ever believed the things he believed then or acted the way he acted. As I reflected on this, rather than shame, for the first time I felt pride. I felt proud of myself for having changed so much.

Though this was a big step, many of the symptoms of depression and anxiety are still with me. These become comfortable and habit after time and do not go away quickly once they’ve grown roots. They are improving and will hopefully resolve completely without the underlying vampire of shame sucking the life out of every step forward and making progress impossible.

When I finally do smile a real smile again and sleep easily for 6-8 hours at night, I will do so because of the massive amount of work I did to completely kill the parts of the old Sam that led to him down a path of hurting himself and the ones he loved.

Once he was dead and no longer me, I could hear his apology and forgive him so that I could move on myself without him in my life anymore.