During Lent lots of us will end up facing some degree of temptation to beat up on ourselves for failing in our efforts to fulfill our Lenten penances. Beyond this, though, forgiving oneself for one’s failings and struggles is a constant struggle. It can be hard to know what forgiving yourself means much less how to do it.
As I’ve shared before, St Augustine said that forgiveness is what happens when we “surrender our natural desire for revenge.” In other words, at the point we stop wanting to hurt someone for having hurt us, we have forgiven them. (Reconciliation is a separate issue, but that’s another post). So how does this apply to forgiving oneself?
To forgive ourselves doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook. It means refusing to give into the temptation to heap coals on ourselves for having failed. St Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, reveals the folly of this approach when he notes that our sins tend to be a flawed attempt to make ourselves feel better. Therefore, the worse we make ourselves feel about our sins and failings the more likely we’ll be to sin again in that same pathetic attempt to make ourselves feel better for having sinned! It truly is a vicious spiritual cycle. If we were to apply Augustine’s formula for forgiveness to ourselves, we’d have to say thatforgiving ourselves means surrendering our natural desire to hurt ourselves… for having hurt ourselves. Think about that a minute. How quick are we to heap pain on ourselves for having hurt ourselves? Does that even make sense? How is that supposed to help?
Let’s take this a step further. Research on effective apologies has some application to this process of forgiving ourselves. If someone makes a good apology, it will usually have three components (at least for a serious problem. Lesser offenses can be healed by apologies with fewer components). First, the person expresses empathy–they make some expression that says they understand how much and how deeply they hurt us. Secondly, they propose a plan of restitution, that is, they say what they want to do to heal the hurt or make things right again. Third, there is the recognition of an objective standard; this is, the person apologizing doesn’t try to pawn it off by saying “you’re too sensitive” or “you expect too much.” Instead, the person making the apology admits that the offended party has a right to have expected more from the offender.
How would we apply this to ourselves? We know that we are truly sorry for our sins and failings, not if we never do it again (which is the ideal, but also a long process) but rather if we a) can articulate how deeply our sinful actions have and are hurting us b)can describe a concrete plan by which we would like to make a real change in our lives and c) can admit that we have a right to expect more and better from ourselves and that God’s grace makes achieving that standard possible.
If we can include these three components in our “apology to ourselves” if you will, we can know that we are truly sorry for what we have done to hurt ourselves which will make letting go of the desire to hurt ourselves for having hurt ourselves that much easier. IF we are having problems forgiving ourselves, chances are, one of these three things is missing. Just like it would be if we were having a hard time forgiving someone else.
This Lent, if you would like to experience more peace in your heart, I would encourage you to give up…beating up on yourself.