I was talking recently with someone who works with caretakers of those who are ill. The insight from the conversation is this: Many caretakers have a sense that they did not do enough. They need to forgive themselves. Self-forgiveness implies that you have broken a moral standard; you have offended yourself and perhaps others.
I am not so sure that self-forgiveness is the appropriate response in many of these situations, where the caretaker feels guilty about not doing enough. I say this because we always can do more…..and more…..and more. When is it sufficient to say, “I have tried hard. I have done my best as an imperfect person. It is time to accept my limitations”?
If we move too quickly to self-forgiveness, then we are not giving ourselves sufficient time to ask this: Maybe I have false guilt here. Maybe I was expecting the person whom I am serving to get much better and that did not happen. Maybe I am tying my efforts to the other’s biological challenges, with the incorrect view that I have not done enough if the other does not get better. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, people do not become physically healthy. Sometimes the other does pass away.
It seems to me that many people, who do courageous care-taking of others, need to see this and not self-forgive, but instead challenge their own view that their care-taking was not enough.
Yes, at times, people missed an opportunity to serve well. At these times self-forgiveness is appropriate. Yet, I think this is more prevalent: At even more times, people have done the best they can. The healthy response then is to humbly accept one’s limitations, refrain from self-forgiving, and to say, “I have done enough. It is sufficient.”
In late August, my colleague, Gayle Reed, and I visited a maximun security prison to discuss forgiveness. The point was not to focus on those in prison seeking forgiveness for their crimes, but instead to help each of them to begin forgiving those who have abused them prior to their serious crimes. Many of these men have been deeply abused by others, but this becomes invisible as the focus is on their crimes and rehabilitating them for those actions.
Yet, this next point seems so little understood: Those who perpetrate crime so often have an anger, a hatred, a fury within because of the injustices they have suffered, often long before they lash out at others. If it will diminish, this kind of fury within needs major surgery of the heart. All the rehabilitation in the world, if it only focuses on their bad behavior, will do nothing to cleanse the heart of fury. Only forgiveness therapy will do that—and this idea of “only forgiveness therapy” came from one of the counselors at the prison, who supervised a forgiveness group for 6 months.
The day at the institution was special for us as we saw the men’s hearts melt at the realization (over 6 months of forgiveness therapy) that they have been deeply hurt by others, not only perpetrators of hurt onto others. They gained the insight that their own anger, rage, and fury built up to such an extent that it came roaring out onto others. As one man said, “Forgiveness is the enemy of hatred.”
Another man had this remarkable insight that anger, which is displaced onto unsuspecting other people, leads to the victim possibly passing that anger to another person, who may pass it on yet again. At some point, he reasoned, someone has to stop the passing on of anger and forgiving can do that job. He said this: “When another is in pain, they are on the hook. Then they put you on the hook. hen you put others on the hook.” He was clearly seeing that his anger was passed to his victim(s).
After our meeting with the men who took part in the 6-month forgiveness group, several of the men came up privately to me. Each one had tears in his eyes and whispered that he needs to forgive himself now. They are having a hard time living with themselves. The remorse was genuine and the pain real.
After 30 years of studying forgiveness and seeing the scientific results of a significant reduction in anger by those who forgive, I am confident that as the people in prison (both men and women) learn to forgive, their anger within the institution may diminish, making their prison home safer for everyone, including the officers and all who attend to them.
This is a new idea for corrections. May it be a standard idea within a decade.
When you self-forgive you are struggling to love yourself when you are not feeling lovable because of your actions. You are offering to yourself what you offer to others who have hurt you: a sense that you have inherent worth, despite your actions, that you are more than your actions, that you can and should honor yourself as a person even if you are imperfect, and that you did wrong and need to correct that wrong done to other people. In self-forgiveness you never (as far as I have ever seen) offend yourself alone. You also offend others and so part of self-forgiveness is to deliberately engage in seeking forgiveness from those others and righting the wrongs (as best you can under the circumstances) that you did toward others. Thus, we have two differences between forgiving others and forgiving the self. In the latter, you seek forgiveness from those hurt by your actions and you strive for justice toward them.
Of all the people in the world, who do we tend to be hardest on when we mess up?
If we self-forgive, is it illegitimate because we are then the judge and the defendant in the case?
Self-forgiveness is not about jurisprudence. It is about goodness. We can offer goodness to ourselves.
If we self-forgive, aren’t we just letting ourselves off the moral hook?
No. When we self-forgive we should go to the ones we have hurt and make amends. We are not letting ourselves off the hook when we try to make things right.
But, self-forgiveness is about forgiving myself for offending myself. Why are we talking about making amends toward other people?
We talk about this because we do not offend ourselves in isolation. If you think about it, if you are very unjust to yourself, others such as partner, family, co-workers, and even the community might be affected, depending on what the offense is.
What should I expect if and when I forgive myself?
Inner peace and the conviction not to do that again.