Dr. Patricia Farrell on Medika Life

Learn to Forgive Yourself and You Do a Great Service to Yourself and Others

The past and our actions are done. Living in guilt or beating ourselves up over our actions serves no purpose, only bringing on damaging emotions.

Once you’ve accepted your flaws, no one can use them against you. — Anonymous

Forgiveness isn’t always easy. We may not think we deserve forgiveness when it comes to ourselves, but we do. One quote from Buddha says, If you want to fly, give up everything that weighs you down.

Many quotes on self-forgiveness are offered by the famous and the not-so-famous, but they all have one thing in common; facing long-held feelings of guilt for prior acts. It’s immaterial if Maya Angelou, Buddha, Carl Jung, Mahatma Gandhi, C. S. Lewis, or any revered person’s quote is memorialized.

They all recognized the need for us to face our flaws, our past ignorance and immaturity or thoughtlessness, the pain we may have caused others and ourselves. In accepting and forgiving ourselves, we learn to live in the moment of our present lives, and we grow from it. Growth doesn’t always come easy. Often it is brought about by negative experiences that give rise to introspection.

Emotional self-flagellation is counter-productive to leading a life of promise, creativity, and goodness. Before you can help others, you must learn to help yourself. And, yes, researchers have been investigating how a lack of self-forgiveness emerges and how it can be remedied.

Self-compassion entails being kind and understanding toward oneself in instances of pain or failure rather than being harshly self-critical; perceiving one’s experiences as part of the larger human experience rather than seeing them as isolating, and holding painful thoughts and feelings in mindful awareness rather than over-identifying with them.

I’ve seen two examples where women blamed themselves terribly for how they acted while suffering post-partum depression/psychosis. This is a biochemical imbalance that includes multiple psychological symptoms. Worldwide, tens of millions of women suffer from this form of depression.

Symptoms include desperation, sadness, nausea, changes in sleep and eating habits, decreased libido, crying spells, anxiety, irritability, feelings of isolation, mental liability, thoughts of hurting oneself and/or the infant, and even thoughts of suicide are common signs of this form of depression.

One woman was terrified to be alone with the baby after her husband went to work each day. “I had thoughts of killing the baby,” she cried.

Another woman couldn’t look at her baby because she was so depressed. She suffered for six months until she was finally correctly diagnosed.

One of the women still suffered the pangs of guilt she felt about thinking of killing her baby well into her late-life years. It was a pain she couldn’t get over.

Were either of them guilty of anything, and did they deserve to forgive themselves?

How many of us are self-critical in situations where there was a failure on our part? Isn’t failure a possible consequence of trying something with no absolute assurance that you cannot fail? One of my professors once told our class that there is no failure. There is only discovery of what is or isn’t possible.

He spoke about career choices (he was a grad student with Donald Super) and how exploration was to be encouraged, not discouraged, because of the potential for “failure.”

No, he said, it’s never a failure when you learn that something isn’t for you. Would you want to waste your life in a career where you were setting yourself up for failure daily? If you were, we’d call you a masochist, and that’s not a good thing.

However it came to be, the road to change consists of psychological flexibility and a renewed sense of self-efficacy.

One of the 20th-century preeminent psychologists, Albert Bandura, outlined his concept of self-efficacy as “self-efficacy beliefs determine how people feel, think, motivate themselves, and behave. Such beliefs produce these diverse effects through four major processes. They include cognitive, motivational, affective and selection processes.”

On a personal note, I contacted Bandura a few years ago while writing a book, and he graciously referred me to a colleague for the information I needed. The truly great ones are like that. And I had a similar experience with B. F. Skinner.

The central thesis of Bandura’s hypothesis is that a strong sense of belief in our abilities enables us to take on tasks that seem complex but which, when mastered, can prove emotionally enriching. How can a sense of self-efficacy help us forgive ourselves?

It is not a simple task and must be developed slowly through a willingness to see ourselves as worthy of forgiving through the process I previously mentioned, introspection.

Any attorney who expects to succeed must learn how to be an effective questioner who can probe whatever depths must be inspected to arrive at some truth. Forgiveness requires that you be that attorney for yourself because too often, we willingly slide into allowing ourselves to be victims of our own making. Not everything is as it seems, but one thing is sure: our perception of any situation can color it in a negative light.

When I was teaching undergraduate students each term, I would bring in a film, “The Eye of The Beholder.” The presented situation, which I can’t remember now, was related to four different people. Each one had a different take on the situation because of their personal needs or beliefs about the individuals in the situation. It’s the same thing with not permitting ourselves forgiveness; we may have something in the wrong light.

One of the famous actors of the times, possibly the 50s or 60s, Richard Conte, stars in the film. It was not made for theaters but for instructional purposes and did cause a great deal of discussion among the students.

Bandura was, without a doubt, an expert in this area, and he outlined sources that would influence a sense of self-efficacy and an acceptance of ourselves as we may have been when the “offense” happened.

1. mastery experiences. A sense of success can build this strength. However, if the task is too simple or easy, it can result in a flawed understanding of self-efficacy.

2. modeling the successes of others and their behavior can transmit this knowledge and teach the observer what might be most beneficial.

3. effective social persuasion from others who believe that the individual does have what it takes to succeed can be a significant boost, especially when that individual may begin to harbor thoughts of self-doubt and dwell on deficiencies rather than their strengths.

What are some other steps we can take to begin the journey of self-forgiveness? Begin by acknowledging that you made a mistake, but don’t stop there. As I said before, the error is a learning experience and was in some context that needs to be uncovered.

Think of the context. Where were you? How old were you? Who was involved in it also? I’m sure you can think of many other questions, but these may start you on that exploration that you need to provide yourself with forgiveness.

Don’t allow your inner critic to have the utmost power over how you see your past and current situation. Begin to question why you’re feeling this way and what is stopping you from doing the work of change. Remember, sometimes we are our most difficult critics, and it may be in the service of preventing us from trying something new and growing in that new experience. Yes, of course, it’s a little uneasy when you’re trying something new, but what was the choice? Do you want to stay at square one, or do you want to move on?

Look at when you are being most critical and realize that there may be a pattern in this that has some ability to change what you’re doing. And I would always encourage you to begin to be your own coach. Provide yourself with positive messages and use them as often as you wish. If you need to say it out loud, do it. You don’t have to scream it, but you can say it as an encouraging word. Your ears are always listening.

And remember, you may be blaming yourself for something for which you were not responsible. So look at that aspect of self-forgiveness and see if it’s really in your place to be forgiven or someone else’s.

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Pat Farrell PhD
Pat Farrell PhDhttps://medium.com/@drpatfarrell
I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.


Medika Editor: Mental Health

I'm a licensed psychologist in NJ/FL and have been in the field for over 30 years serving in most areas of mental health, psychiatry research, consulting, teaching (post-grad), private practice, consultant to WebMD and writing self-help books. Currently, I am concentrating on writing articles and books.

Patricia also acts in an editorial capacity for Medika's mental health articles, providing invaluable input on a wide range of mental health issues.

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