“You have to forgive yourself.” Every time some version of this raises its’ false, misleading and ugly head in popular media, I roll my eyes and sigh. This advice, usually from one well-meaning character to another, is literally impossible for human kind to do. It’s offered as a platitude that is meant to be helpful, but is ultimately harmful. It reveals the speaker (or writer of the characters’ words) has absolutely no idea exactly what forgiveness actually is.
Forgiveness is relinquishing the right to exact just retribution for a wrong suffered. It always involves two parties: the offender and the offended. “Forgive yourself” implies you are both offender and offended. This is never the case, and I will explain why. Any person who feels they need self-forgiveness is most likely is suffering from a guilty conscience.
A guilty conscience is the result of violating the moral code imbued into our soul at creation. That code includes the big things-don’t murder, don’t steal, etc. As we make our way through life, that code goes through refinement, but it always reflects our judgements of our actions towards other people. If we feel guilty, my fellow humans, it is because we have injured (or believe we’ve injured) another person. They don’t even have to know about the injury for us to feel guilty over it.
In situations like this, only the injured party can offer forgiveness. Any “forgiveness” we would offer to ourselves would, at best, be an attempt to justify bad behavior, and, at worse, strangle our conscience. Often ‘forgiving yourself’ ultimately manifests in a strangled conscience so we simply don’t feel bad. Incidentally, not feeling bad about our behavior doesn’t mean we are not guilty of injuring others.
Now, as a matter of reflection on our behavior, it is possible to be disappointed in ourselves. Through the course of our lives, and in our interactions with others, discovering we do not have the bravery, or fortitude, or temperament we believed we did can be discouraging. While this may be humbling- even humiliating, it isn’t an injury to anything but personal pride.
But this disappointment is, in the end, an opportunity. Painful as that disappointment might be, it shows us where we are and gives us the opportunity to be better human beings. It opens up a path of growth for us.
Guilt and forgiveness are complex issues, and more will be written on this top. For now, let’s agree that our guilt should lead us to seek forgiveness from those we’ve actually injured, rather than try to convince ourselves that our bad behavior is really okay. The exception to seeking forgiveness from others would be if doing so added to the injury they suffered. Seeking forgiveness can ultimately lead to better relationships and deeper bonds of respect and affection between all parties uninvolved, so stop trying to forgive yourself and seek the forgiveness that truly matters.