Each of us knows what it’s like to feel like a failure, where we let ourselves or someone else down. We know what it’s like to feel stuck in a toxic cycle, like we just can’t change our ways. We come to believe, after repeated “failures,” that we are doomed to forever repeat these happenings and we feel more and more ashamed of who we are as a person, because we think we are the problem who keeps perpetuating this behavior. The real problem is the voice of shame we come to believe tells who we are.
Shame itself is not wrong in any way, it’s an emotion that signals us to try something in a different (or what we perceive as “better”) way the next time, or to make amends with the current situation. This emotion helps us grow, learn, and become more conscious individuals. Yet, more often than not, we internalize shame and let it consume the deep core of our minds. Rather than allowing it to solely have it’s moment in the spotlight with the current situation, then bow and leave, we often let it run around our mind with a paparazzi of toxic thoughts. This is where self-forgiveness comes in, to start to take power away from internalized shame.
This type of shame is more than just an emotion. It becomes heavy beliefs that start to dictate our perception of ourself. Some of these probably resonate with you:
- “I can do better than this”
- “Why did I just act this other way?”
- “My actions caused so much trouble”
- “I always end up hurting the people I care about”
- “I’m never able to keep a steady job”
- “If only I was smarter, then I’d be successful”
- “There are people prettier/better/wealthier than me”
- “I can never feel happy because I have depression/PTSD/anxiety/etc.”
Instead of solely experiencing momentary shame, we begin to define our existence around these core beliefs based on internalized shame. This itself is enough to make us miserable, since such strong self-perceptions define how we see our every action and it’s very painful to feel ashamed of almost all of our existence.
We can change this by practicing self-forgiveness. Over time, the beliefs will shift towards positive, self-advocating and affirming statements. Instead of feelings of failure or distress in our life, we’ll experience feelings of confidence, resilience, and validation.
If you noticed, in the above list, these shameful beliefs are founded in absolutes where we decide that we are consistently wrong in some common endeavor in our lives. It’s “have to,” “should,” “never” and the other demons of language. With self-forgiveness, we break the idea that these are constant and introduce a sense of fluidity to when we have to feel shame. We give ourselves options—to feel shame or to tell ourself it’s okay, right then in that moment.
I’ve struggled a lot with self-forgiveness, especially in feeling like I should just “get over” the abusive relationship I was in. I’ve internalized the belief that I’ll just drag people down if I express that I’m still hurting, so I should just get rid of the pain so I don’t have to show it to others. Through a journey of self-forgiveness I’ve been correcting these thoughts when I hear them to something like “it’s okay to still feel connected to your abuser—that’s how you coped in the past and it’s totally valid” and “there is nothing wrong with hurting, it’s how you’re healing right now.” These two statements, when I tell myself them over and over, have really started to change my perspective about the trauma I suffered. I’m starting to feel like I’m as perfect as can be right here, in this moment, and that it’s only my choice if I want to change things. It’s not mandatory and, if I’m too tired or hurt to move forwards, I no longer am upset at myself for needing to rest.
Each of our situations will be different, but we can all increase our self-forgiveness in the same way. First, we need to recognize the shameful thoughts we have. A simple mental awareness exercise, like self-observation, meditation, or journaling will help us hear the automatic thoughts we have in our mind. From here, we can decide what affirmation to tell ourselves to counter these toxic thoughts. What do you want to believe about yourself? Reach towards the ideal you have and speak those beliefs to yourself, even if you don’t believe them at first.
Most likely, when you tell yourself it’s okay to hurt, feel a certain way, or to have made a certain mistake, you’ll feel a lot of emotion. Self-forgiveness is incredibly powerful because it’s fueled with pure self-compassion and feeling this can overwhelm us with relief. Let the emotions flow; it’s natural for them to arise.
It may take weeks, months, or years of reconditioning your thoughts to fully adopt new beliefs, but every step you take towards them is one step away from internalized shame. Repeatedly changing your thoughts will impact how you feel and it’s okay if this takes time—make sure you tell yourself that affirming belief too. Even when you fall into a place of shaming yourself consciously, which can and does happen in a lot of us, remind yourself then or after that it’s okay you repeated those patterns.
Self-forgiveness means being okay with every action you do and thought you think, because you’re always doing your best. Even if your best of today, or this moment right now, was not the same best as yesterday, it’s still your best. You are valid to feel and act in this way and, through self-forgiveness, you’ll give yourself the option to move away from internalized shame—the kind that keeps us repeating patterns we want to change—and into a place full of loving expansion and healing.