Dogs forgive their abusers

Healing your shame and guilt through forgiveness

"True confession is telling our deed in such a way that our souls change in telling it." - Maude Petre

We hear a lot about the importance of forgiving those who have harmed us, but what about forgiving ourselves? Is that important too? I think that's it.

When we harm someone, it is normal and healthy to feel bad, feel regretful, and wish we could take it back or do something to make the person feel better. What is not healthy is to keep beating ourselves up for our wrongdoing and finding that we are a bad person because of it. The first experience is commonly thought of as guilt while the second is viewed as shame (Even among professional therapists there is little agreement on the exact difference between guilt and shame, so I don't want to be distracted from discussing this controversy. For our purposes, I will what to introduce I consider this to be the most helpful information on the subject.

Shame and guilt can feel very similar - we feel bad about both experiences. But guilt can be understood to mean that you feel disappointed when you violate an important internal value or code of conduct. Feelings of guilt can be healthy: they can open doors that lead to positive behavioral changes. With shame one can also feel a disappointment within oneself, but no value has been violated. As Gershen Kaufman explained in Too bad: the power of care, "The meaning of the two experiences is as different as the feeling of inadequacy from the immoral feeling."

Shame is incredibly unhealthy and leads to a decrease in self-esteem (feelings of unworthiness) and behavior that enhances self-image. As we learn more, shame can be an extremely debilitating emotion. Shame is responsible for a wide variety of problems including, but not limited to:

  • Self-criticism and self-blame
  • Self-neglect
  • Self-destructive behavior (abuse of your body with food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, prone to self-mutilation accidents)
  • Self-sabotage behavior (starting fights with loved ones, sabotaging jobs)
  • perfectionism
  • Believing that you don't deserve good things
  • Intense anger (frequent physical fights, street anger)
  • Take action against society (break the rules, break the law)
  • Continuing the repetition of the cycle of abuse either through victim behavior or through abusive behavior

Some have explained the difference between shame and guilt as follows: When we feel guilty, we feel bad about something we have done or neglected. When we are ashamed, we feel bad about who we are. When we feel guilty, we need to learn that it is okay to make mistakes. When we are ashamed, we need to learn that it is okay to be who we are.

I believe that forgiveness is the most powerful step you can take to rid yourself of debilitating shame. This is especially true of those who have been abused, but applies to everyone. In addition to being recommended, self-forgiveness is essential if we are to become emotionally healthy and calm. It goes like this: the more shame you heal, the more clearly you can see yourself - the good and the bad. You can recognize and admit how you have harmed yourself and others. Your relationships with others will change and deepen. More importantly, your relationship with yourself will improve.

In my book It Wasn't Your Fault: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse Through Self-Compassion, I wrote about how compassion is the antidote to shame. Self-compassion neutralizes the poison of shame and removes the toxins caused by shame. Self-forgiveness is an important aspect of self-compassion. It calms our body, mind and soul from the pain caused by shame and makes the entire healing process easier.

The barriers to forgiveness

Many people have great opposition to the idea of ​​self-forgiveness. You can view self-forgiveness as "getting off the hook," as if self-assessment is the only way to improve. However, negative self-judgment and self-blame can actually be an obstacle to self-improvement. The more shame you feel about your previous actions and behaviors, the more your self-esteem is lowered and the less likely you are to feel motivated to change. And without self-forgiveness, your level of shame will lead you to protect yourself from accepting more shame by refusing to see your mistakes and not being open to criticism or correction.

The good news is that you can choose to change your behavior while forgiving yourself. The more you forgive yourself, the more motivated you will be to change. Self-forgiveness opens the door to change by releasing resistance and deepening your connection with yourself.

Another reason you may have difficulty forgiving yourself is because you may have a strong need to be "good" and to be considered "all good" in the eyes of others and yourself. This need to be "all right" may have started because your parents or other caregivers had inappropriate expectations of you and may have severely punished or abandoned you for making a mistake. You may now find that you are as critical of yourself as you are unforgiving.

If you have harmed others and have not forgiven yourself, you may be asking yourself, “Why should I forgive myself? It won't help those I've harmed. "Most powerful reason: when you don't forgive yourself, the shame forces you to continue to act harmful to others and to yourself. And when you forgive yourself, you can heal another layer of shame and set yourself free, continue to be a better person Without the burden of self-hatred you've been carrying around, you can literally change your life.

How to forgive yourself for the damage you've done to others

Forgiving yourself for hurting or hurting others is probably going to be the hardest thing you will ever have to do to heal your shame. In fact, it can be the hardest thing ever to do in your life. This is especially true if you have repeated the cycle of abuse by harming another person in the same way that you were abused.

For example, it seems impossible to forgive yourself for abusing a child. After all, you know firsthand how much child abuse harms a child. And you know firsthand how much the shame that comes with abuse can destroy a person's life. Here are some examples of what customers have shared with me regarding the shame they felt:

  • “How could I abuse my own child the way I was abused? I knew how devastated it was to be beaten by my father. Yet I turned and did it to my own children. It is unforgivable. "
  • “I made a promise to myself that I would not treat my children the way I was treated. Yet, to my horror, the same words my mother said to me came out of my mouth. Those terrible, shameful, devastating words: “I hate you. I wish you were never born "How can I forgive myself for saying these terrible words to the people I love most in the world?"
  • "I feel like a monster. The shame of molesting my daughter is so great that I can't even describe her. I couldn't have done anything worse to her. I have affected her life so badly. She must feel so betrayed . She must hate me and I don't blame her. "

Four ways to forgive yourself

As difficult as it may seem to forgive yourself for the harm you've done to others, there are several effective ways to do it:

  1. Self-image
  2. Common humanity
  3. Earn your forgiveness: taking responsibility, apologizing, and making amends
  4. Ask for forgiveness from your higher power.

As you read the suggestions below, choose the avenues that speak most to you and your situation.

Self-understanding can lead to self-forgiveness

If you were abused as a child and then repeated the cycle of abuse with your own children, it is important that you gain some understanding of yourself. Understanding that the trauma you have been experiencing has caused problems within you that were beyond your control can go a long way in helping yourself to forgive yourself for hurting others. For example, understanding that your addiction - whether it was alcohol, drugs, sex, food, shopping, or gambling - was a way to self-medicate and deal with anxiety and fear can help you stop beating yourself up for the harm that your addiction has inflicted on the people around you. Hopefully, when you understand that the reason you abused your children or partner, or developed a pattern that allows others to abuse you, came directly from your experiences of abuse, you can hopefully stop punishing yourself for these behaviors.

Research shows that the long-term effects of trauma (like childhood abuse) are most obvious and noticeable when people are stressed out, in new situations, or in situations that remind them of the circumstances of their trauma. Unfortunately, becoming a parent creates all three of these circumstances for someone who was molested in childhood. First time parenting, in particular, is stressful and almost always releases memories of our own childhood trauma. This creates the conditions for child abuse.

The sad truth is also that those who were abused or neglected in childhood are more likely to abuse or neglect their own children than someone who has not had the experience. There are certain qualities that may have led you to abuse or neglect your children. These include: the inability to feel sorry for your child; a tendency to take things too personally (this could have caused you to overreact to your children's behavior by yelling, naming them, or hitting them); being overly invested in your children who look good (and you look good as a parent) because you lack confidence ;; and insist that your children care or respect you to make up for your shame or lack of trust.

And there's another reason that isn't often discussed that can lead parents to become abusive: You see your own weakness or vulnerability in your child. People with a history of victims often develop a tendency to hate or despise weakness. If you've seen weakness in your child, you may have been reminded of your own vulnerability and victimization, and this may have sparked your own self-loathing and led you to hit your child.

Your own experiences of abuse or neglect may have prevented you from developing the qualities necessary to be a good parent. For example, if your mother has not bonded with you emotionally, you may find it difficult, if not impossible, to bond with your own children. If your parents waited for you to meet needs that should have been met by other adults, you may have repeated this pattern. and if your mother didn't protect you from the abusers in your life, you may not have protected your own children from the abusers in your life.

Forgive yourself

Gaining common humanity and compassion for yourself

Kristin Neff is an Associate Professor of Human Development at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer who first established self-compassion as a subject. In her construct of self-compassion, she names the recognition of shared human experience - or what she calls "shared humanity" - as the second fundamental element of self-compassion. In her book Self-compassion,She explains that "Self-compassion honors the fact that all human beings are fallible, that wrong decisions and feelings of regret are inevitable."

The truth is we harmed everyone else. In fact, every single person on this planet has harmed at least one other person in a way that shaped that person's life. Knowing this and knowing that you are not alone, you can have compassion for yourself and forgive yourself. Feeling compassionate for yourself doesn't release you from taking responsibility for your actions (we'll discuss this later in this blog post). But it can free you from the self-hatred that is preventing you from forgiving yourself and free you to respond clearly to the situation. Rather than tormenting yourself with guilt and shame, compassion for your own suffering and for the suffering of those who have hurt you can help you achieve the clarity needed to think about how you can help those who are You hurt. (We'll also talk about how we can remedy and repair the damage later in this blog post.)

Recognizing the interconnectedness of our lives is another aspect of common humanity. The truth of who we are, how we think and how we behave is inextricably linked with other people and events. (Neff, 2011). In other words, you did not get to where you are today on your own. Your tendency to be a victim or your tendency to be abusive didn't just happen. You need to keep looking for the causes and conditions that lead you to these unhealthy behaviors.

When you examine your mistakes and failures it becomes clear that you did not consciously choose to make them, and even on the rare occasions when you have made a conscious decision, the motivation because your actions were caused by your abuse or actions colored other experiences. Because of the shame you have borne, you have closed your heart to others and have become blind to how your actions harmed others. In addition, external circumstances also contributed to the fact that you formed your special patterns. These external circumstances can be any of the following: genetics, family experiences - including how your parents treated you and each other - and living conditions such as poverty, family history, and your cultural background.

As Kristin Neff wrote Self-compassion: “When we realize that we are a product of myriad factors, we don't have to take our 'personal mistakes' so personally. When we recognize the intricate web of causes and conditions in which we are all embedded, we are less able to judge ourselves and others. A deep understanding of networking enables us to have compassion for the fact that we are doing the best we can when hand life has given us. "

Exercise: your sins and omissions

Write a list of the people you have harmed and the ways in which you have harmed them. One at a time, go through your list and note the various causes and conditions that led you to take this action or inaction. You have already made the connection between your harmful actions and the fact that you have been abused or neglected. Now think about other precipitating factors like a family history of violence and a family history of addiction, as well as more subtle factors like stress from financial problems or marital problems.

Now ask yourself why you didn't stop yourself from harming this person.For example, were you so angry that you couldn't control yourself? Did you hate yourself so much that you didn't care how much you hurt someone else? Would you have built such a defensive wall that you couldn't have? Empathy or compassion for the person you hurt?

Now that you have a better understanding of the causes and conditions that led you to act as you did, see if you can apply the concept of Common Humanity (Neff, 2011) to yourself: You were an imperfect, fallible person, and like all other people sometimes, you have acted in ways that hurt someone else. Honor the limits of your human imperfection. Have pity on you Forgive yourself

Deserve your forgiveness

If you continue to resist forgiving yourself, ask yourself this: "Why shouldn't I want to forgive myself?" If your answer is "I don't deserve it", that's your shame. If you still feel like you don't deserve forgiveness, you might think you need to deserve it.

How do you deserve forgiveness First of all, you must admit to yourself and others the wrong you have committed. Unless you are telling the full truth about how you harmed others, first to yourself and then to the person or people you harmed (if possible), you may not believe that you deserve to be forgiven. (And besides, they may not be willing to forgive you unless you admit what you did to harm the person or people you hurt.)

Getting involved in your mistakes is of no use to anyone, including the person you harmed.

Taking responsibility for your actions may make you feel more ashamed in the moment, but that feeling of shame is replaced by a sense of self-respect and real pride (as opposed to false pride).

To prepare for this process:

For some time, think seriously about how your actions or inaction harmed the person.

Completing the following sentence can help:

"I harmed ________by___________________."

Write down how your act or inaction harmed that person.

"I made ______________ suffer in the following ways ______________."

The next step is to go to those you harmed and admit what you did to hurt them. It is important that you tell those you have harmed that they have a right to their rights to anger and that you encourage them to voice their anger directly at you. However, make sure that you don't allow anyone to abuse or shame you. Taking responsibility can also include admitting to other family members how you abused or neglected your victim.


Your admission of what you did to harm others is doubly powerful when accompanied by a heartfelt, sincere apology. One of the most common comments I hear from those who were molested in childhood is that they wish the abuser would admit what he or she did and apologize to them for it. Think about an incident where you felt hurt by another person. What did you want from this person to forgive him or her? Most people say they want an apology. But why is it like that? It's not just the words "I'm sorry" that we need to hear. We need the wrongdoer to take responsibility for their actions, and we need to know that the wrongdoer feels regret or remorse for harming us.

An apology can remove the cloak of shame that even the most repentant person wears. On the flip side, an apology can remind you of the harm you've caused when you don't feel enough shame for doing wrong to someone else. When we have to apologize to someone, we usually feel humiliated. Remembering Humiliation The next time you are tempted to repeat the same act, it may prevent you from responding to your impulse.

When we can develop the courage to admit when we are wrong, to overcome our fears and resistances, and to apologize, we develop a deep sense of respect within us. This self-esteem, in turn, can affect our self-esteem, confidence, and general outlook on life. When I apologize to you, I am showing you that I respect you and that I care about your feelings. I let you know that I did not mean to hurt you and that I intend to treat you fairly in the future. When you apologize for abusing or neglecting a child while that person is now an adult, you are not only confirming their experience, but you are helping the person remove himself or herself for the abuse.

How to apologize sensibly

A meaningful apology is one that communicates what I call the three Rs: regret, responsibility, and remedy.

  1. A statement of regret having caused the inconvenience, injury, or damage. This includes an expression of empathy towards the other person, showing that you understand how your action or inaction has harmed him or her.
  2. Taking responsibility for your actions. For an apology to be effective, it must be clear that you accept full responsibility for your actions or inaction. This means not to blame anyone for what you did and not to make excuses for your actions.
  3. A statement of your willingness to take action to correct the situation. While you can't go back and undo or redo the past, you can do everything in your power to repair the damage you caused. Therefore, a meaningful apology must include a statement in which you offer a refund in some way, an offer to help the other person, or a promise to take action to prevent you from repeating the behavior. For emotional or physical abuse, you can attend therapy or a support group to make sure you don't abuse anyone again. You can offer to pay for your victim's therapy, or you can donate your time or money to organizations that work to help victims of abuse.

For more information on how to apologize sensibly, see my book: The power of apology.

Seek forgiveness from your Creator or your higher power

When we face the truth of how we have hurt others, sometimes severely, feelings of guilt and shame can be overwhelming. Often times the only way to find compassion for ourselves or self-forgiveness is to achieve something greater than our individual selves.

Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs that ask your higher power for comfort, compassion, and forgiveness can be a powerful step towards forgiving yourself. This can be as simple as praying to God to forgive your sins, or it can involve a more structured gesture. For example, within the Catholic Church, the act of confession is essentially an apology to God. It contains all the major components of apology - a statement of regret, taking responsibility for your actions, promising not to repeat the crime, and asking for forgiveness. For a long time it was customary in Jewish tradition to ask for forgiveness from family members, friends, neighbors and colleagues during the Holy Days.

You may also want to pray to your higher power for help in your self-forgiveness process. Many of my clients have reported believing they have received help with this endeavor.

Once you've learned from your mistake and don't want to repeat it, you no longer need to feel guilty or ashamed. Forgive yourself and let it go.

When you find that you are still overwhelmed with guilt or shame about how your past behavior has affected someone, it is important to recognize and remember this truth: the most effective method of forgiving yourself is to do so You swear that you will not continue doing the same behavior or hurt anyone in the same way again.