From an early age, we are taught to apologize when we have erred and excuse the mistakes of others. The release of guilt is integral to our mental health, like a cleansing of the soul. Indeed, Christianity’s very foundation is based on the act of forgiving. But what happens when the person we most need to forgive is ourselves?
An apology is the first step in a process of healing. There is an admission of guilt or fault in a given situation. Responsibility is taken for the erroneous words or action and an offer is given to set things right. This can be very humbling for those of us not accustomed to admitting our failings. We suddenly become vulnerable. Forgiving is the acceptance of that apology and a willingness to forget the offense. Occasionally it will be denied, and we must learn to deal with that reality. Usually a sincere, heartfelt apology will be well received. From there, the relationship can heal, continuing to grow and move forward.
Forgiving ourselves requires that the internal hurt be healed as well, but this does not always happen. The other person might grant us forgiveness, but we are unable to bestow upon ourselves similar consideration. When this occurs, we struggle mentally and emotionally. Our spiritual life is hindered as guilt takes over our mind. Our misdeed influences all our decisions and weighs heavily around our hearts. Where there is constant remorse, there can be no peace.
The deepest guilt is often the result of a violation of our own moral standards. In my fourth book, Mike, the main character suffered tremendous guilt from a former girlfriend’s abortion because it violated his Christian beliefs. Every one of us has a moral code, and when it is broken, there is incredible anxiety. Transgressions as simple as lying can linger in our hearts long after we have been forgiven by the offended. We allow the memory of past failures to linger, constantly reminding us of our imperfections. This slowly eats away at our stability and self-image.
This guilt affects our future relationships in a very negative manner. When we encounter a similar situation, we are reminded how poorly we handled our first response. A reluctance to deal with the issue can cause us to withdraw. Sometimes we even portray ourselves as a martyr. However, this self-sacrifice is for unhealthy reasons and it inhibits rather than encourages personal growth. In essence, we stagnate in our own shame and condemnation.
We need to break free of these self-imposed prisons and not be held captive by the past. The first step in the process is admitting the error of our words or actions. We need to realize that we are only human, and humans make mistakes. A sincere apology must be made, just as if we were apologizing to another person. The final step is to accept that apology and forgive. For the greatest impact, write down the words or speak them aloud. A friend not involved in the original transgression can be called upon, as my character Mike called upon Danielle to assist in the process. What matters most is the acceptance of the apology. Once we have truly forgiven ourselves, the healing procedure can begin.
Just as we are our own worst critics, so are we less likely to forgive ourselves. Guilt creates a very small cage, inhibiting our ability to maintain healthy relationships and develop as a person. Mike had to forgive himself if he ever hoped to have a future with Danielle. Once we discard the shackles of guilt and condemnation, we will also be free to pursue a bright future!
- Author: L. Diane Wolfe