The best expression of remorse is a life well lived.
In order to forgive ourselves it helps to understand the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt and shame or often mentioned together as if they are the same, or very similar. However, they are really very different things.
Guilt arises when we have done something which goes against our sense of right. Shame arises when we feel that there is something wrong with us. Guilt is a feeling about what we do or what we have done; shame as feeling about who we are. When we feel guilty we think, “I have done something bad”; when we feel shame we think “I am bad”.
It is important to understand the difference as to fully forgive ourselves we need to deal with both our sense of guilt and our sense of shame. Some events might trigger both these feelings in us, but what it takes to resolve guilt is different from what it takes to resolve shame.
We let go of guilt simply by letting go of the desire to punish ourselves, by letting go of self condemnation and any form of wanting to harm or hurt ourselves. We can help ourselves do this by making amends for what we did, apologizing, using the Four Steps to Forgiveness, and so on. This may help us heal some of our shame as well as our guilt, but resolving shame often needs to include using another approach as well.
To let go of shame we need to become reconciled with ourselves (see Reconciliation). Shame is healed by having a better ongoing relationship with ourselves, particularly with any parts of ourselves which we judge as weak or defective in some way. We need to create a happy and healthy relationship with ourselves to banish unhealthy forms of shame. This means being willing to become aware of, and release, the “voices” with in us which denigrate us, or put us down in any way. It also means changing how we relate to people around us who are not good for us and putting a distance from them if we can. It means spending more time with those who are good to us and good for us. It means learning to stop being suspicious of people who genuinely like us. Letting go of shame has a lot to do with becoming a good, kind and caring friend to ourselves.
Many of us internalize a parent, teacher, or relative, who was overly critical, or harsh, to us in our formative years. If so, we have the voice of that critic running in our heads. It could be pushed so deeply within us that we are hardly aware of it, but the feelings and moods it creates will still come up. We do not need to fight with that overly-critical, shame-inducing, voice. We do not need to hide from it, or be troubled by what it says. We do not need to give it power by reacting to it. Any time our inner critic offers us something which is not helpful, or constructive, we can just tell ourselves, “This is just a thought, that is all it is.” In time it will run out of steam if we do not react by resisting it, or by giving in and believing what is says.
A sense of shame can be what actually pushes us into doing things which we later feel bad about. A sense of shame can fuel addictions, bad habits, withdrawal or overly aggressive behavior. A sense of shame, if left unchallenged, is self-perpetuating. When we feel bad about ourselves we feel weakened and more easily temped to keep doing things which keep us feeling bad about ourselves. Therefore a sense of shame can feed guilt and more shame.
We will not allow ourselves to have what we feel we do not deserve no matter how ridiculous or unwarranted that feeling of not deserving. Yet, unfulfilled wants do not go away. They just go underground and come out as addictions and compulsions. Our addictive and compulsive behaviour then makes us feel undeserving. This is the Shame Loop; feeling a compulsion to do something which we feel we should not do, feeling ashamed of ourselves about that, our attempts to hide from our sense of shame (and the critical voices inside which condemn us) arises as a compulsion to do something which we feel we should not do, and so on.
Pride and Shame
Feelings of shame are not just personal. We can also pick up feelings of shame from our nation, our family, or our even just being in the vicinity of an event.
Before looking at National Shame let’s first look at National Pride. I was born in, and live in, a naturally beautiful country (Scotland). One day an American visitor said to me, “You live in such a lovely country. It is just beautiful!” I felt some pride stirring inside me for a few seconds, but then I thought about it. “Wait a minute! I had absolutely nothing to do with the beauty of this country. I did not create the mountains he was so admiring, or the rivers and landscape he so enjoyed. I don’t think I could even create a small hillock even if I dedicated my whole life to it. Anyway, it is not as if there are even any training courses available on how to create mountains, valleys and rivers. Why all this pride?”
On the other side, my sense of national shame can be triggered when our national football team don’t do well in the World Cup – which unfortunately is what happens every time they enter. After watching a few games I usually have had enough cringing while watching them lose and I give up.
I read somewhere that the football club Manchester United have more supporters in places like India than they have in the UK. Many of these “fans” are people who never have never been to the UK, and likely never will come to the UK. They have no natural connection with Manchester United football club. Yet, all those people celebrate when Manchester United do well and are unhappy when they don’t.
This is a frivolous example (unless you are a serious football fan), but points to a much deeper issue. Our pride and shame can be triggered by situations over which we have absolutely no control. Or we can deliberately pick things – which otherwise we have absolutely no connection with – to use as a source of pride. That is most likely why those guys in India are wisely choosing Manchester United rather than the Scottish team to support. Pride and shame can be quirky and arbitrary yet they are primary driving forces which shape our behaviour in deep and profound ways. They shape events on the personal level as well collectively through nations operating via the world stage.
Guilt and shame are by no means always bad. When they work in healthy ways they put reasonable limits on our behavior and help us fit into the social norms of our time. Guilt is useful when it causes us to make amends for some wrong we have done and encourages us to change our behavior. Shame is useful when it causes us to question our attitudes and beliefs and to look for ways to become a better person, such as by developing personal qualities that we lack. Shame might drive us into developing more sensitivity to the feelings of others if we lack that, or more boldness in taking our ideas to fruition if that is what we lack that.
It is a matter of learning how to manage these primal feelings of guilt and shame in ways which are constructive. It is not a matter of blindly giving in to them, avoiding them (by keeping busy) or trying to fight against them. We do not want to be bound by feelings from the past which are not leading to constructive attitudes or useful action.
It goes against the natural goodness of life to hold onto the past. The best way to make amends for any wrong we have done is to live well now. To paraphrase an old saying, “The best remorse is a life well lived”. If there are ways to make amends for something we did then that would naturally be part of living well. Living well does not include letting other people hold our mistakes against us, especially if we have done all that can reasonably be expected in the way of making amends. If people continue to blame us beyond reasonable limits then it is about them and not about us. They are acting out their own issues and we need to question their motives even if they play the victim. The Aggressive Victim likes to play on the guilt and shame of others as a way to create a smokescreen around their own belligerent behaviour and as a way to hide their dubious motives.
Guilt or shame can be used by others to manipulate us or control our behavior. Such manipulations usually come from those who claim the moral high ground. Yet such claims are counterfeit as guilt and shame are an unhealthy means of influence at best. They are the tools of those in a desperate scramble for moral superiority and not the tools of those who have actually achieved it.
Even otherwise very confident and competent people can inwardly collapse in the face of a Shame Attack. It might come from a member of the family “I remember you would pee the bed as a child”, or from our life partner, “Remember when you forgot our anniversary!”, or come out of an attack on the past actions of our country, “Remember what you people did in the war!”. The answer to all of these is simply an attitude of, “I have moved on from there, what others do is up to them.” As an additional defense, we always have the right to doubt the morality of any position someone is maintaining with such low tactics.
If we berate and condemn ourselves for something wrong which we have done, who does this serve? Who benefits from this? How is the world a better place by us condemning ourselves? It can be useful as a temporary measure to stop ourselves doing further harm, but it is not useful beyond that. Berating ourselves for too long is just more of the same kind of overly self-centered focus which got us into trouble in the first place. Most of our errors come out of being too caught up in ourselves and not being aware enough of the wants and needs of other people. Far better to use our time and energy in ways which will help and serve the needs of others rather than spending it uselessly on some form of self-loathing or self-flagellation.
How to forgive yourself
In forgiving yourself The Four Steps to Forgiveness are basically the same. However, we can modify a step (Step 3) by adding a section on how others will benefit from us forgiving ourselves.
1. I want to forgive myself for_________________
Pick one specific thing.
2. I want to release the feelings of _________________
List the feelings you have around the event. You need to acknowledge those feelings to release them to move forward.
Examples; fear of being punished, self-reproach, self-hate, guilt, shame, etc.
3. I acknowledge that forgiving this situation will benefit me as I will _________________
List benefits which will come to you as you become able to forgive yourself. The benefits can include being free of the feelings you listed in Step 2, and feeling their opposite. Benefits can also include being able to create better relationship, getting a better job, having more money, etc., depending on what is relevant to what it is you are forgiving yourself for.
Examples; be happier, be more forgiving, be able to earn money in good ways, be a better parent.
As this is a self forgiveness process we add an extra step, Step 3B, to the usual four steps. It that step we focus on the ways others will benefit from you forgiving yourself. Some benefits might be spin-offs from the benefits you receive from forgiving yourself; some might be benefits which come to other people as you become more alive and creative.
3B. I acknowledge that forgiving myself for this will benefit others, because _________________
Forgiving yourself can benefit others by helping you become a better parent, a more attentive friend, a better listener, and more forgiving person and so on. You might be less self-absorbed and more interested in others. You might become less needy and have more to give. Pick an example of a benefit to others which is likely to really matter to those around you.
Examples; I will be more pleasant to be around (less grumpy, sour and depressed), I will become kinder and more loving. I will have more to give.
4. I commit to forgiving myself for _________________ and I accept the peace and freedom which forgiveness brings.
As well as, or instead of peace and freedom you can list specific benefits. You can also include benefits which others will receive too from the changes which happen within you as you learn to forgive yourself. Often the benefits you receive directly benefit others too. If you become a happier person, or a better employee, many around you benefit too. Being aware of the benefits to others, as we do these Forgiveness Steps, can help make it easier to forgive ourselves.
1. I commit to forgiving myself for getting angry at my wife/husband , so that I am free to live up to my full potential and can become a more loving partner.
2. I commit to forgiving myself for losing my job, so that I can move on and find an even better job with more pay for the benefit of myself and my family.
It is better to do the steps in writing at first. Start with small things, though you will find that with forgiveness there are no small things. Even forgiving yourself for what seems a petty, minor thing which happened long ago can cause big changes. Go round all the steps at least a few times and you will see how the ability and capacity to forgive builds within you as you do so. Add things, change the words you use (if you want) as you go around. Linger over the steps where you feel movement happening within you.
Of course none of this excludes making amends or apologizing where this is feasible and would be helpful. As long as doing so is not going to cause the others involved more pain. If you give it some thought and feel into what is right you will soon get some ideas as to what to do. If it is not possible to make amends. Then live your life as best you can. Consider the good you can do; rather than the bad you cannot undo.
Is it not up to God to Forgive me?
If you are a religious person you might wonder where God fits into this. You might be thinking, “It is up to God to forgive me.” The thing to consider is, who is it that has condemned you? You certainly have, or you would not need to forgive yourself. You need to deal with that and take it from there. Do you really think it is a good idea to decide how God will judge your actions and try to preempt that by punishing yourself in advance? Better to learn to forgive by practicing on yourself, or others, and you might then have a clearer idea of how God is likely to see things. If you feel the need to pray for forgiveness then by all means do so.
A drowning man cannot save another from drowning. Any person who has not forgiven themselves will have little idea, or ability to forgive anyone else. That it why so many find forgiveness difficult. They refuse to forgive themselves out of feeling unworthy of it. Feeling unworthy makes them incapable of forgiving others too as they feel that they have so little that they cannot give. The feeling of being unworthy makes them easy to offend and they easily store up a sense of injustice or resentment. Forgiveness is a way out of this.
Forgiveness has a beautiful price. The price of forgiving yourself is that it will be harder for you to prevent yourself forgiving others. The price of forgiving others is that it will be harder for you to prevent yourself from forgiving yourself. Forgiveness is giving the gift we feel we cannot afford only to find that we have it in abundance.
It is easy to see that being egotistical is to think too highly of oneself. However, it is not so easy to see that being egotistical can include thinking too lowly of oneself. The ego loves to separate itself by being “special” even if that means being specially bad. Don’t be arrogant, you are no worse than anybody else. Anything which blocks normal participation in life, prevents living life to the full by being overly self-concerned and self-absorbed, is egotistical. A focus on, “my mistakes”, “my regrets”, “what I did wrong”, and just as off balance as being too absorbed on self promotion and self congratulations. If you realise that you have been doing this, no need to be hard on yourself. The truth is never a stick with which to beat yourself.
Self forgiveness not only helps you. It contributes to healthier friendships, healthier families, healthier workplaces, healthier communities, healthier governments and ultimately to a healthier world. It is a step towards a world in which more and more people do and say the right thing and can act out of a sense of good and rightness; rather than the manipulation and compulsiveness which comes out of unacknowledged guilt and shame.
Self forgiveness is one of the most unselfish things you can do. It frees you from self-centredness and self-obsession and allows you to take your place in the world. Self forgiveness stops you being one of those people who are an emotional or psychological burden to those around them. It enables you to recognize and meet your needs in healthy ways. It enables you to participate in relationships in ways which contribute positively and constructively to the lives of others. It helps you bring your best to both your social life and your work life. Self forgiveness enables you to be someone who knows what is good and right and is able to take a stand in creating that in your life and in the world.