Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D.
This week, we’re excited to feature a blog series by Dr. Ev Worthington, Jr. of the soon to be released title, Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past. Whether you work in a clinical, pastoral, or lay care-giving setting, Dr. Worthington’s insights about forgiveness and emotional healing have both personal and professional application.
I guess if we live long enough, we will have some serious regrets over some wrongdoing or our failure to live up to standards and expectations. Those regrets can harden into self-condemnation.
It happened to me in the summer of 2005 when I learned of my brother’s suicide. Suicide is a huge national problem. About twice as many people commit suicide as lose their lives to murder each year. In suicide, most people who know the person who took his or her life feels guilt, remorse, shame, failure, anger, self-blame, sadness, fear, regret, and usually a profound sense that we could have done more and, worse, in the past we did things that contributed to the sadness of the person who took his or her life.
I trace my journey in trying to deal with my own self-condemnation in Moving Forward: Six Steps to Self-Forgiveness and Breaking Free from the Past. I moved from taking my failures to God and receiving forgiveness to trying to cope psychologically with my regrets and self-recriminations and finally to making amends by helping Mike’s widow pick up the financial pieces. I wrote of those in yesterday’s blog. I even faced another suicide of a student in our doctoral program and was perhaps able to provide a bit of comfort for others who had not, before that time, faced a suicide of someone they knew personally.
But in 2008, I had still not reached a sense of peace. I dedicated a week to working diligently on experiencing that peace. To do so, I worked through a tried-and-true method of promoting forgiveness of others who have offended or harmed us—the REACH Forgiveness method. There have been over 25 controlled clinical trials showing that that REACH Forgiveness model works. So, I applied it to myself in a REACH Emotional Self-Forgiveness attempt.
R = Recall My Hurtful Acts
I spent the first day working on the first step, R, involved recalling the hurt. I spent time remembering times I had hurt Mike. I went back and tried to recall what it was like hearing about Mike’s death and the period afterwards. I thought through my months immediately after the suicide and remembered vividly the day I made the decision to forgive myself
E = Emotionally Replace Unforgiveness with Empathy with the One Who Hurt Me (Myself)
At the outset of the second morning, I focused on empathizing with Mike. What must he have felt that was so painful that it drove him to kill himself? I considered his life, his job, his interactions with the family he loved. The more I empathized with him, the less central I felt to his experience. I realized at an emotional level—not just head knowledge—that my own failures did not drive him to suicide. This was not making excuses for my failures or justifying myself. I had let him down. But empathy brought with it a cooling mercy toward my guilt.
Then I tried to empathize with myself. I could give my clients the benefit of the doubt, affirm their worth when they were overwhelmed by old patterns, and affirm that they were not perfect and didn’t have to be. I couldn’t usually give that same mercy to myself. But this was helping me. Yes, I wasn’t perfect. Reacting to my past was natural. God expected me neither to be completely free of the past nor perfect. Rather God expected me to come to the divine throne with my imperfections and receive the covering that is afforded by Jesus’ love. As I empathized, I felt myself changing, becoming more understanding of my own mistakes. I didn’t excuse them. I wanted to change. But I let go of the strangle-hold I had around my own neck. I began to trust God to change me.
A = Altruistic Gift of Self-forgiveness
The third day, I tried to give myself an altruistic gift of forgiveness. That forgiveness was not just decisional forgiveness; that decision had been made long ago. It was not just about helping me feel better. It was a gift of grace born from gratitude because I had been forgiven by God and by other people for my wrongdoing. Therefore I should try to give myself the same grace as I would someone else. I felt the burdens finally lift.
C= Commit to the Emotional Self-forgiveness that I Experienced
The fourth part of the model to REACH emotional forgiveness is to commit to the forgiveness that I experienced. Often this can be enhanced through some kind of ceremony or ritual. So, on the early morning of the fourth day, I headed to JupiterBeach for solidifying a new beginning.
At the beach, the tide was coming in. I found a big piece of coral on the beach, and I piled a mound of sand around the coral, and I topped it with shells. The coral represented to me my heart. I thought of the shells atop the coral as tangible metaphor for God’s love piercing to my heart. The sand represented the mound of self-blame and shame that kept the shells from touching my heart. I hoped that sand would be washed away by the waves of the Holy Spirit. As the waves came in, washed the sand away. After 30 minutes, there was just a pile of spread out shells, with one resting atop the coral and the others all around it. To me this represented all of the emotional self-blame being swept away. The beautiful shells scattered about represented the lessons God’s love had taught me. Where self-blame had rested earlier, the waves—the Holy Spirit—could now touch my heart directly and surround it. And the shells, God’s love, were actually scattered from my heart to where they could be distributed widely.
H = Hold Onto the Self-forgiveness When I Doubt That It Was Real
The fifth day I took the final step to REACH emotional self-forgiveness–H, holding on to the self-forgiveness when I doubt that I have forgiven myself. There were many ways that I had encountered accusations and thoughts of self-condemnation before. I knew those attacks would come again. But I had found that in dealing with unrealistic expectations and now going through the steps to REACH emotional self-forgiveness, I finally felt free. I hoped never to have the condemning thoughts of myself again.
Everett L. Worthington, Jr., Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University in the APA-accredited doctoral program in Counseling Psychology. He is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Virginia, a Professor for 35 years and a researcher who studies clinical interventions to promote forgiveness, self-forgiveness, humility, better couple relationships, and better mental health through Christian accommodated interventions. His most recent book is Moving Forward: Six Steps to Self-Forgiveness and Breaking Free from the Past (WaterBrook Multnomah).