Thought Catalog
May 13, 2014

How To Forgive Yourself

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J.Thorn

When my great-grandmother died, my grandmother spent the time before the viewing hours with her wheelchair propped up next to her mother’s casket, hand inside, forehead down on the rim, crying and talking.

My grandfather met me by the doorway before I was going to walk in and explained that I should give her space — that she was grieving, and processing, and reconciling. It was a raw moment, a one-sided conversation that she wanted to be two, but had no choice. No choice but to have it as it was, no choice but to have it.

Their differences, and whatever they stemmed from, were as evident as their likeness was, that being their mutual lightness. They kept a fun and funny and almost childlike air about them into their old age; a rarity, if you ask me. For the genuine lack of better phrasing: my grandmother celebrated every single day, and that is not a metaphor, I mean literally. She actually sang with the windows down, had no inhibitions, enjoyed life for what it was. She was more doe-eyed and enamored by the fun and love of life than anybody I had ever met, and her mother was as well.

And yet, they carried a burden. Between them and in themselves: of the past, of the unanswered questions, of the unforgiven truths. And these truths didn’t coexist, rather, they were grown out of one another.

The thing about forgiveness is that we usually wait until after the moment of tension to air our heartaches. We don’t inject the antidote until after it’s passed, though it never really does. Forgiveness is a two-part-deal. It requires both parties to agree that they care more about something — their relationship or whatever it may be — more than they care about their frustrations with it. They care more about each other than they do their own ill-resolves.

The thing about forgiving yourself is that you have to care more about yourself than you do your grief. You have to decide that you deserve your inner narrative to be a loving one, and that unnecessary punishment isn’t the way to change. Forgiveness is about time — but not always in the way people think. It may take time to gather the wherewithal to address something, but it’s also a matter of time in that it’s a moment-to-moment decision. One that requires us to understand who we’re going to point the forgiveness at, and therein, who we are blaming.

We have a tendency to direct that blame in a safe way. Behind closed doors, to friends who swear they won’t tell that you’re bad mouthing another friend. We don’t talk about anything in real time; we let it fester and spread and infiltrate the moments of our lives until eventually it’s the thing those moments are built off of.

And what happens here is that the way we direct that blame and anger is at ourselves, even though it feels like it’s toward someone else.

Forgiveness is not a thing we approach while it’s alive and beside us, but it should be. We otherwise spend lifetimes not forgiving because we can convince ourselves it’s what’s just. That to be a self-actualized and aware adult, we need to delineate “good” from “bad,” and not overlook a transgression, lest we be permitting it.

But not every failure is a transgression against your person. Not every act is committed out of a place of malicious intent — in fact, few are. Failures are re-directs, wrongdoings often reflections of the unhealed parts of us. When we don’t take the signals to change, and don’t see these things as feedback, we end up forgetting that we’re allowed our humanness. We are not required to be perfect, we are required to try — not for perfection, but for healing, for being as wholly ourselves as we can be. Perfect is someone else’s idea of who we should be, and we don’t have to punish ourselves for not being it.

We expect many things of ourselves, and of other people, by the very virtue of giving them titles. Our parents are supposed to provide for us, and they’re not supposed to be so swooped up in their own issues, angers, trials, that they cannot. And when these concepts we have of how life should look fall short, we punish ourselves. For not being good enough children. For not being good enough people. We act out of necessity, most of the time. The moments in my life that I can recall being cruel to someone else, being cruel to myself, I was not coming from a place of logic. I was coming from a place of deep, wounding pain, and I had to do whatever I had to do to get out of it.

But punishing doesn’t heal.

I learned that the hard way, as I beat myself against a brick wall, torturing myself by making myself my hardest, most unrelenting critic. But it didn’t make me better. It didn’t make me try harder. It made me more convinced I could not do that which I wanted to. It made me more skeptical that I was even worthy of it. It was bulleting a ship until it slowly sank.

Forgiving myself — for my imperfections and for this — had nothing to do with being okay that I had failed, but overturning the ideas on which I thought I was failing. It wasn’t judging the action, it was analyzing why I chose to make it. It wasn’t re-living the darkest moments of my life on repeat, it was tapping into why I felt the way I did, and arriving at that place of more innate understanding is what changed me. At that place, forgiveness seems almost inevitable. You don’t torture yourself for justice, you change yourself for it.

The other day I was taking my four-year-old brother out to get something to eat and as we were driving, he said something cute as little kids often do and I giggled to which he very abruptly yelled: “Don’t LAUGH at me.”

“Why?” I asked. “Why does that bother you? Is there anybody else that laughs at you?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“A kid at school.”

“For what?”

“He says I’m stupid.”

“Do you believe you’re stupid?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because he said so.”

It took everything in me not to want to spiral into a teary fit of why he was so perfect and loved, but I didn’t because I knew that wouldn’t help. So I asked him: “Do you remember earlier today, when you were mad at mom because you couldn’t go outside and you said she was the meanest, worst mom ever?”

He did.

“Did you mean that? Did you mean to make her sad?”

“No.”

“But you did. So why did you say that then?”

“Because I was angry.”

“Right.”

And for a split second before his milkshake came, he looked at me with a little glimmer of understanding, and then went on for the next 15 minutes very intently trying to convince me that he never actually meant to make my mom upset, or hurt her feelings, that he was just mad.

Forgiving the kid who called him a name came down to forgiving himself — or rather, understanding himself. And that’s a very big thing for a very little kid to wrap his head around, whether he understands it in those terms or not.

Forgiveness is something we give to ourselves before anybody else. It’s a one-sided conversation before it’s two. It’s the simple allowing of a flawed humanness, and the complex commitment to growing — not out of fear and guilt, but love. And it’s something you do before it’s too late, it’s something you give before you don’t have the chance to get in return. TC Mark