How can we begin to think about forgiving ourselves while we are living lives that are stressed, fragmented, and pulled in so many directions that every day seems almost like a losing struggle?
How often are we shutting down parts of ourselves as we try to get everything done in response to that disapproving, denigrating voice of the Death Mother in the back of our heads?
How often does this leave us going through the motions of our day-after-day routine without much dynamism, creativity, or time to love?
I am deeply moved by how hard so many women are trying today – at work, in relationships, as parents, and in pursuing healthy living. But most of the ones I know have trouble forgiving themselves for not getting it all done…or for not valuing what is most important to themselves.
Too often we are tyrannized, without realizing it, by the Death Mother complex in our psyche, in the form of feeling unworthy and trapped in our lives. Then we become driven by the things we think we want, and by whom we think we should be or are expected to be. Yet deep in our hearts, we know something is missing, something that could fulfill us. Self-forgiveness for beating ourselves up, as we strive after admired cultural values, begins with our search for the deep feminine soul within ourselves – the home of quietness, and the face of gentleness and compassion that we can turn towards ourselves. This is where self-forgiveness begins.
But we also face another hurdle. The great patriarchal marketing machine in our society knows how to spot our needs and amplify them in order to sell us never-ending solutions to them. This machine runs most of the self-help market, the new age market, and our religious and spiritual markets. This machine points out our inadequacies, struggles, and failures, and then promises hope through relatively easy solutions. I know many people who have tried path after path, and ended up with more secret guilt and shame. Most of these paths don’t lead us into the inner depths where the heart of our transformation lives. Most of them don’t lead us into our deepest selves where our untamed energy lies, and where our capacity to dream and imagine, beyond what we know, resides.
Forgiving ourselves for failing our own expectations in a world that doesn’t support and nurture us is a good place to start our journey home. We can peel this onion of self-forgiveness down to layers beneath our feelings of “falling short.” I remember a professional woman whom I worked with a few years ago. She had become a well- respected therapist, raised two children virtually alone, and was now in a loving relationship. But she was still haunted by the guilt and shame in her earlier life. When she was twenty-two, she had gone through a drug treatment program, and later had an abortion. In tears, she finally told me, “I don’t even have a clue as to how to start forgiving myself.” She isn’t alone. Most of us don’t have a clue as to how to start forgiving ourselves. Many of us can peel the onion a little deeper, and discover we have trouble forgiving ourselves…as irrational as it may sound…for not being the child who could bring peace into our families…or for not being the child who could earn our parents’ love.
One of the hardest things I have learned is that self-love rests on self-forgiveness. It rests on being able to understand who we were when we failed ourselves…and on being able to understand what needs, hurts, fears, and deprivations were driving us…and may still be driving us. Only then, are we able to meet ourselves with compassion, kindness, and forgiveness.
Through decades of my personal work with myself and with others in my professional work, I have learned to face the reality that love is difficult. Learning to love is always an odyssey that challenges the boundaries of how we have fenced ourselves…into practicality, into what we think we want, and into other people’s opinions.
But we face even another problem in this journey that we explain in depth in our book Into the Heart of the Feminine. In this success-oriented, as well as identity-oriented, society, we are taught to see every problem we have as a failure and a flaw in ourselves. So instead of forgiveness, we end up blaming ourselves, and are either trying to repress and deny our guilt and shame, or are looking for new ways to discipline ourselves with new programs of “self-improvement.” When these efforts flounder, we risk creating a growing pool of inner shame, and we never seem to be able to reach our goals.
Behind these struggles with ourselves, are the influences of the Death Mother complex in ourselves. (We comprehensively explain this influence and how to deal with it in our book Into the Heart of the Feminine.) Qualities of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness are traits that the Death Mother stops cold, in our identity-based world, especially when these qualities need to be directed towards ourselves.
Like love, forgiveness is not a simple process. As with learning to love, forgiveness, too, is a journey…a deep, psychological process, and we have to learn how significant and meaningful the complexity of it is. The key to this forgiveness process is for the offending person to take responsibility for the wrongdoing, to express sorrow and regret, and to promise his or her best efforts not to repeat such actions. Unless there is an acceptance of responsibility, forgiveness is an illusion to protect us from the strength of our own feelings. So how can we forgive, reconcile, or make amends with ourselves?
To begin with, we must free ourselves from the Death Mother’s effects and our cultural attitudes, and learn how to greet our wounds and failures with compassion and tenderness. We also need to honor how many challenges we have already faced, how hard we have tried in our efforts to do better, and what we have actually accomplished. Then we need to create our own ritual of reconciliation with ourselves. It is important to remember that these rituals of coming home to ourselves deserve sacred time, and that they are to be loved and desired – not inflicted upon ourselves. We may choose to make amends with the scared, wounded, failing parts of ourselves by writing a dialogue with them.
For example, the professional woman, that I mentioned earlier, may need to listen to the story of – the confessions of – her younger self who used drugs and had an abortion, similar to the way a good priest would listen to a confession. Or, this woman may need to approach her younger self as someone who is wanting to make amends, and then may need to listen to her speak of her sadness and regret. This ritual of reconciliation needs to be done in a written form, a dialogue with her younger self.
As we develop our personal ritual, we may use sacred symbols that move us, we may listen to special music, draw, or paint our feelings, and even dance them. Symbols have the effect or the power to transform the energy of our locked up feelings. Forgiving ourselves is the first step in coming to love ourselves. It is the first step in learning to not consider ourselves flawed, weak, or failures. It is acknowledging that we are filled with possibilities…and understanding that we must find self-forgiveness and love in order to give birth to these possibilities. Through self-forgiveness and love, true healing can take place. This is the healing that reconciles us with our essential Self.
Painting above: The Slav Epic, Alphonse Mucha
Articles by Drs. Bud and Massimilla Harris