What does it mean to forgive yourself?

Forgiving others is something we practice from an early age. We are taught to let go, to move on and to accept others’ mistakes. But what about our own?

I think forgiving ourselves is one of the most powerful acts we can master. In my work I’m always looking for ways to help us quieten our inner critic. The more I work on this in my professional life, the more useful it becomes even in my own life.

Recently, I did a therapeutic activity in a dance class where we acted out stories and emotions.

We had a lot of fun, acting surprised, embarrassed, amused. We acted happy and celebrated a pretend birthday party. Then the story took a twist, and we took turns in acting disappointed and jealous. We threw imaginary tantrums and slammed doors with anger. It was loud!

Mostly, we enjoyed the door slamming. It felt satisfying to act cross, frustrations vented. It’s good to “try out” emotional states when we aren’t actually in them. We have the chance to observe and gather different viewpoints.

For me, the door slamming stirred something. A few hours after the class had finished I remembered a time I left a situation in anger and I fled without much explanation.

I had been a group member of an organisation that had become locked in conflict. I saw no resolution, apart from my exit. Perhaps in my self-criticism, I blamed myself.

On reflecting on my real-life tantrum, I fell into shame. Questioning, regrets, self-judgement flooded me. Why did I leave like that? How could I resolve a similar situation better in the future? How can I be more balanced/less emotional?

A plethora of judgements of my perceived ill-handling of the dynamics grew over the coming week. It felt BAD. I drafted an apology/ explanation to the ex-group members. But I didn’t send it.

I got some Supervision. I talked to my confidants.

I waited. In subsequent dance classes, we practised some different moves, one in particular that ended with an extended hug of ourselves. Slowly swaying with my arms wrapped around myself, I engaged in my own self-compassion. I forgave myself. I remembered how I was feeling at that time; stuck in constant stress and fight or flight. I remembered the events and behaviours of others that led to my leaving.

Over the course of a few days, I forgave myself for not handling differently. I actually hadn’t been a place to handle it any other way! I reflected on my lack of social support. I held others accountable (in my mind) for their part in the what happened, rather than taking all the burden.

And then all the regret and negativity left. As quickly as the trauma was unhinged with the slam of a door, it dissolved with a solution of love and forgiveness I gave myself. Hurrah!

Self-compassion. It’s pivotal to surviving in the work of helping others, is firstly helping and caring for ourselves.

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