Your Own Worst Enemy: Learning to Forgive Yourself

I was around seven years old at my grandparents’ house when I started to recount a mistake I had made “in my early fives.” I don’t even know if I made it past that statement, because all the grownups at the table found it hilarious that I should classify such a short time difference so significantly and emphatically. In my mind, I had believed my older self shouldn’t be thought of as the exact same as younger me; it was an important detail to me that I wasn’t the same age anymore, so when I shared my mistake people shouldn’t treat me as if I were.

That moment itself has now become the tale we laugh about, but I wonder if seven-year-old me was onto something. Fast forward to the past few years, and now I usually feel that I always make the same mistakes. You’re not likely to catch me telling you about something I messed up “in my early sixteens” because I probably feel like I haven’t learned enough in the years since then to speak about it. And for the things I do know I learned from, my usual response would be far closer to beating myself up over it than taking it as it comes. The more people I meet, the more I realize I’m not even alone in doing this; why do we spend so much time holding onto the past instead of moving forward?

The Winning Voices

For all the times in my life that I’ve forgiven anybody, I realize there’s one person I’ve never actually said those words to, or about – and that would be me. No one is harsher on me than I am on myself, for every mistake, wrong decision, and embarrassing moment. Somewhere, I lost the perspective I had at seven: enough confidence in the fact that I had grown to recount a mistake from not long ago, trusting that people would understand I had learned better and not hold me to my past. But today, I’m the one who holds myself to my past more than anyone else.

Stop for a moment and ask yourself: If you had a friend who spoke to you the way you speak to yourself on the inside, would you stay friends with them? Or if someone criticized you the way you do your own self, would it be blatantly obvious to everyone that putting time into that friendship was bad for you? More often than not, we let ourselves get away with this behavior as if it’s no big deal, but would instantly know it was wrong if we were to say those things aloud to someone else or hear someone say it to us.

The words we speak and the thoughts we think have more impact on us than we might think; the voices we choose to listen to can affect how we see ourselves, and then in time even the rest of the world. God knows this; but for being the One who knows each of our sins, He still calls us by name, while Satan knows our names but calls us by our sins. God calls us up higher through everything we might have done; but Satan wants us to stay right where we are, with no hope. So if one voice is God’s and the other is from the devil, and all I repeat to myself is judgment grounded on what I have done wrong, I have to ask myself whose voice it is that I’m listening to – and I’ll give you a hint: it doesn’t belong to God.

Taking the “Me” out of Mercy

I like to have control over situations in my life, but the thing about forgiveness is that it takes that away. It’s not a feeling, but a decision; even when you have a right to be hurt or upset, forgiveness turns that over to God and ultimately heals you – even from yourself – in time. Despite the fact that this choice is very much the better one when things get crazy, I at least like to believe I have control over my own self. It’s not easy, but it’s predictable; it’s not easy, but it feels more secure to me. And it’s a voice that whispers I’ll forgive myself only once I’ve fixed what went wrong because that’s how to be in control of my life and its impact on others.

God’s mercy, however, takes everything beyond the realm of my control. The thing about mercy is that we don’t deserve it (that would be justice). The thing about mercy is that we can’t earn it. The thing about mercy is that it’s a gift from God to receive with open hands; but how can we do that it if we have our hands wrapped so tightly around control?

We can’t, we have to let go. When God forgives us, He wants to give us the grace to forgive ourselves, too, and let go of all our control so He can take over! We can’t go back and change the past, but He can use it for good. We can’t predetermine our future, but He can give us the strength to face it. And when we can’t even forgive ourselves in the present, He’ll offer enough mercy so we can lean on him for the grace to do so, if we’re willing to accept it.

On the Other Side of the Door

God doesn’t want to condemn us because of our sins, He wants to forgive and absolve us of them. He offers us that opportunity with limitless mercy in the Sacrament of Confession, yet never forces it on us. Literally no sin is beyond forgiveness, so the only ones left unforgiven are those for which we won’t ask forgiveness. God is more eager than any of us to welcome each of His children back as many times as they’ll turn to Him. And God’s forgiveness is complete and entire, too; He doesn’t hold us to our past, but, “as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:12).

When we go to Confession, God has boundless mercy to offer us. When we step into the confessional, we’re not going to simply tell our sins to a priest, but to Christ Himself. We complete our penance, and resolve to “sin no more.” When we walk out of that door after receiving absolution, that’s no doubt a huge weight removed. Through the words of the priest, Jesus speaks “pardon and peace” into our lives; with pardon, our sins are removed, and with peace we have the grace to go forward and keep running the race. But do we remember to actually take that peace with us, or do we quickly leave it behind?

When we withhold forgiveness from ourselves, we block out that peace no less than when we withhold it from others. Christ doesn’t want that for us – Christ, who healed the sick and forgave their sins with the same words, wants to heal us, too, so we might grow closer and closer to Him. Accepting His forgiveness but holding back our own only does damage to ourselves, as we will never see how truly set free we are if we hold ourselves back down. It’s not easy, and I’m not sure it ever will be. It’s something we have to keep choosing to do, over and over; but it’s also something God will give us grace to do each and every day.

Time won’t go back to all the wrong choices we’ve made and give us a chance to fix them, but nor do we have to try to control every aspect of life, because we know how the story ends. We know that God returns, we know He wins, we know that death, sin, and pain will be defeated. We don’t live on that new Earth yet, but we can have confidence in the grace of God that will get us there every time we seek His pardon and allow His peace into our lives. So the next time Satan reminds you of your past… remind him of his future.