SOURCE: Leslie Vernick
Question: The hardest person to forgive is myself. I once heard that this attitude or inability to forgive myself was an insult to God because if He forgives me, who am I to not forgive myself? Am I greater than God that I should withhold forgiveness towards my own self?
This perspective helped me for a while, but once I committed another sin or mistake, I went back to not being able to forgive myself. This is so hard. My problem becomes greater when I fail to succeed in a romantic relationship. I think about what I did wrong over and over again and how I could have changed it or made it better. How do I stop this? I’ve been unforgiving towards myself for the past 6 months and it is eating me alive. I’d really like to be free and forgiven by myself just like God forgives me and wants me to be free of guilt.
Answer: Your question is an important one because inevitably as human beings we all sin, make mistakes and fail at things. The writer of James says it well when he writes, “We all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2). When we aren’t able move beyond our failures, mistakes and even sins, we can get stuck in a spiral of debilitating regret, depression and even self-hatred.
The person who told you that your inability to forgive yourself insults God brings up an excellent point. If the God of the Universe was willing to come to earth, become human and sacrifice himself to forgive our sins, who are we not to forgive–either others or our own self? Yet that theological truth can be difficult if not impossible to put into practice when we’re in the middle of ruminating over our stupidity, mistakes, missed opportunities or sin.
Most of the time shame, guilt and self-hatred arise because we have failed to live up to our own idealized image of ourselves. Do you ever hear yourself saying things like, “I should have known better” or “Why did I do such a stupid thing?” or “I can’t believe I did that?” or “What’s wrong with me?”
These kinds of statements are evidence that you have an expectation of yourself to always do it right, to always say it right, to always know ahead of time what the right answer should be or what solution will best solve a problem. When you fail (as you inevitably will), you feel disappointed in yourself. You tell yourself that somehow you should be better than you are. And, in your particular case, when you’re involved romantically and this happens, you make it the sole reason the relationship failed.
You rehearse over and over again what you could have or should have or ought to have done, said or not said, so that the relationship wouldn’t have failed. But guess what! Every single person messes up in relationships. We all say or do the wrong thing at times. We all are imperfect, flawed, sinful human beings and yet many of us have decent relationships with other flawed, fallible, imperfect, sinful human beings. So mistakes, failures and even sins aren’t the reason your relationships are not lasting or succeeding. If that were true, no one would be capable of having any long term or loving relationships.
The problem is that you want control over how the relationship goes and you believe a dangerous lie. The lie is: if only you could be MORE perfect, then the relationship will succeed. If only you were more perfect, then the other person would love you, or never hurt or leave you. That’s not true. Look at Jesus. He was perfect and people disappointed him. They didn’t always love him very well–even his own disciples abandoned him. His family thought he was crazy. He was spit upon, beaten, mocked, and nailed to the cross. Being perfect does not guarantee loyalty, love or lovability.
The reason you can’t forgive yourself is because you want to be like God–you want to be perfect and in control of things and you can never get there, even if you try really, really hard. There is only one God, and he’s not you.
Therefore, the way out of this bondage when you mess up is not self-forgiveness but rather self-acceptance. You must accept who you are. You are both saint and sinner, beautiful and broken, strong and weak, naughty and nice. Humility is the path that will give you the freedom you seek because, when you are humble, you can emotionally accept you are a creature–a fallible, imperfect and sinful creature. Once you do that, you will not be so shocked, or shamed, or disappointed by your darker, weaker, sinful side.
It’s not your mistakes and failures that are causing your greatest emotional pain. It’s your unrealistic expectations of yourself and your lack of acceptance when you make mistakes, you are weak, you do sin and you fail, which causes your emotional spiral downward into self-hatred and despair. In a backwards way, your pride has been wounded. You are disappointed that you aren’t better than you are, but the truth is, you’re not. In embracing that truth, you are set free.
The solution you’re seeking is not to forgive each mistake or failure, but to accept that you will make mistakes, sin and fail. Once you accept this truth, the self-hatred for doing so no longer has any power over you. Instead, that same energy can now be used to humbly ask for forgiveness from others where necessary. It can be used to learn from your sins or failures so you don’t continually repeat them, which, if left uncorrected, will harm your relationships.
One of my old fashioned mentors, François Fénelon wisely wrote, “Go forward always with confidence, without letting yourself be touched by the grief of a sensitive pride, which cannot bear to see itself imperfect.”
Go forward, friend, and emotionally accept your imperfections. It is in that place of humility coupled with Christ’s unconditional forgiveness that will you find the freedom you long for.