Psychologist Fred Luskin, PhD, is the director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project. Dr Luskin has been conducting studies and workshops on forgiveness up and down the California coast for years. From Berkeley to Big Sur, he’s worked with men who’ve cheated on their wives, wives who’ve cheated on their husbands, kids who’ve dumped their parents, parents who’ve dumped their kids, and a whole lot worse.
Amazingly, the biggest obstacle he’s found to self-forgiveness may be the tendency we have to wallow in our own guilt. “It’s not just that we feel bad because we know we’ve done wrong”, he explains. “Everybody does that. But some of us actually draw those bad feelings around ourselves like a blanket, cover our heads, and refuse to stop the wailing.”
If that sounds nuts to you, you’re not alone. Wailing should be reserved for the victim, not the perpetrator, right? Dr Luskin says, “We curl up in a ball and say, Hey! Look how bad I feel! See how I’m suffering! I’m pitiful! I’m pathetic! I can’t be punished any more than this; it wouldn’t be fair!“—”It’s a crazy form of penance,” adds Dr Luskin with a shake of his head. Many of us unconsciously decide to punish ourselves by feeling miserable for the rest of our lives.
Dr Luskin has spent 6 years studying how people move toward forgiving themselves and others, and it’s clearly a process that pulls at his heart as much as it teases his mind.
“Forgiveness is a tool with which we face what we’ve done in the past, acknowledge our mistakes, and move on, It does not mean that you condone or excuse what happened. It does not mean that you forget”. “Remember the saying, ‘For everything there is a season’?”, he asks. “Well, there’s a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that. But the season ends; the world moves on. And we need to move on with it.”
This issue may seem hard to relate to for some of us but the fact of the matter is that the notion of ‘forgiving oneself’ is a popular one today. Psychologists tell us that we have to forgive ourselves for whatever wrongs we think we may have done in the past. We have to get past those things, and put a bright face on it all. We have to tell ourselves that “it’s okay” for us to move on. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” our friends tell us. “Give yourself permission to make mistakes, and forgive yourself when you do,” today’s therapists say.
I heard of a woman who, many years ago, accidentally ran over a child with her car. He had been riding along the street on his bicycle, suddenly turned to cross the pavement, and drove right into the path of the oncoming car. The woman whose car rolled over his little body struggled with deep trauma for years afterwards. Her friends would sometimes find her in quiet places, sobbing with grief. There was no reason for her to feel responsible for the accident and yet she was plagued by guilt and very likely thought to herself, “I just can’t forgive myself.”
So many Christians say, “I can forgive others, but how can I ever forget what I have done? I know God forgives me, but I can’t forgive myself.” Have you said that to yourself recently?
(To be continued in I Can’t Forgive Myself – Part 2)