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Forgiving Yourself (A Story)

Photo by Jon Jacobsen
To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you. ~Lewis B. Smedes

I sat in the middle of the large wood-cabin conference hall and scuffed the pine floor with my hiking shoe. The flames in the huge rock fireplace danced as I gazed at them, lost in thought.

I hadn’t wanted to come to this retreat.

“What’s it like?” I asked my friend, Bruce, one of the organizers of the retreat. “There’s no dancing around the fire in loincloths with mud on our faces, is there?”

Bruce gave me his wry smile. “No.”

I never knew if Bruce was telling the truth or lying when he gave me the wry smile. This time, he was lying. We didn’t wear loincloths, but there was a lot of dancing and communing with the earth by smearing her contents on our faces.

Bruce talked me into going and I was fully prepared to hate it. Anything that smacked of spirituality for me was anathema. My wounds were still raw and my insides seethed when something merely grazed them.

The weird thing was, I loved the retreat. The theme was about learning to be more welcoming in the world but it was based purely on African indigenous spiritual beliefs, thus the dancing, mud, and drumming, lots of drumming.

Despite my abhorrence of anything spiritual, I was immediately swept up into the rhythmic, loving community of retreaters and was soon participating eagerly in all of the exercises and rituals.

Our leader was preparing us for a healing ritual and our assignment was to think of a time or an incident about which we still carried resentment, hurt or anger. Each of us would work on healing that specific emotional injury.

The retreat participants gathered into small groups to share our wounds and hopes for healing.

My Story

My group listened carefully as I laid out my story of being raised in a fundamentalist Christian family, how I never learned to think for myself and was convinced that I would go to hell if I did, how I never questioned the literal truth of the Bible, and how I was sure that, like my mother, I was Right about all of this.

I told them about going to college and becoming involved in a fundamentalist, yet charismatic, campus ministry. Coming from a family that was on the low end of the expressive, affectionate spectrum, this assembly of singing, hand-raising, hugging people made me feel welcome and loved, truly loved. And the ministry’s tenets fit in with my naïve schemata about Rightness.

My group leaned forward in their seats as I talked about being chosen to facilitate a small group in the ministry, the first step up the ladder toward real leadership and discipleship.

All groups – which were divided by gender – had to have two co-facilitators. This part of the story is very long, but the short of it is that my co-facilitator, Mary, and I fell in love.

I knew homosexuality to be an egregious sin, yet I could not stop my feelings for Mary and our relationship deepened. It was the first time I had ever been in love. We were inseparable.

However, the Big Leadership at the ministry saw what was happening and confronted us. We were given an ultimatum: either stop seeing each other or leave the ministry.

Being young, naïve, and certain that leaving the ministry would not only cut off my loving social support but also lead me straight to hell, I chose to stay and not see Mary any longer. I thought my heart had shattered into a million pieces.

The Big Leadership also decreed that we would have to confess our sins to the group of young women that we had been leading. And confess to the leadership group we were required to attend each week. And attend mandated spiritual counseling with the Big Leader’s wife.

These confessions were the seeds that later grew into the ugly weeds of my anger toward religion or anything spiritual.

And the “counseling” provided by the Big Leader’s wife was more of the same. She often had me read Psalm 51 “until I was sorry”: Have mercy on me, O God . . . Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight . . . Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me . . .

“It was so horrible and humiliating!” I wailed to my retreat group as tears coursed down my cheeks, the memories of over a decade ago sweeping through me. The man next to me tenderly put his hand on my back. The rest of them looked at me, stunned. Some were weeping.

The oldest member of our group spoke. “It is time for your healing,” she said gently.

Self Forgiveness

That night, the healing ritual consisted of three components: Fire, Water, and Earth.

Before we began, the retreat leader told us to take a small piece of paper and write on it what we wished to see enveloped by the fire and released into the air.

People around me started scribbling paragraphs. I took my stubby pencil and wrote one word: Anger.

A bonfire raged and split the darkness outside the meeting hall. We formed a loose line and, one by one, were to approach the flames. Then, we were to toss in the papers with the wounds we had written down.

As I stood in line and felt the heat from the flames, I looked down at my paper. Anger. Anger as hot as this fire at the ministry, the Big Leaders, the woman who “counseled” me . . . I would let go of all of it.

I stepped toward the fire. Taking one last look at my paper, I crumpled it up and tossed it into the blaze. It burst into flame and immediately started floating upward, becoming only ash as it left my sight.

Expecting to feel lighter and free, I was disappointed to find that I felt nothing. No release. Nothing. The volcano of my anger within stirred and rumbled. “See? This is what happens when you turn to spirituality. You get disappointed,” I thought.

I batted that thought aside and moved toward the next component of the ritual, Water. I was directed toward a large bowl of water containing small rocks.

The Water person explained, “Water is about forgiveness. Choose a stone and place those you need to forgive within it.”

I reached into the cool water and withdrew a stone, then followed the guide through the darkness toward the rocky beach. She had me sit on a bench and then she was gone.

It was pitch black and I could just barely see the edge of the water a few feet in front of me. The Water group was softly singing an African song and I could sense other participants around me.

Out of the darkness, I heard a gentle voice softly say, “Take off your shoes.” It was like an angel inviting me to heaven. The voice was so loving I had to comply. I took off my shoes and socks.

The voice continued, “The stone you hold contains forgiveness of those who have hurt you. When you are ready, walk into the water and release the stone into its depths.”

I rolled up my pant legs and tottered unevenly to the water’s edge and then in.

The freezing water against my skin focused me on my task. I put all of the memories, the resentment, the humiliation and painful emotions from my college experience into the stone in my hand. I was going to forgive them all.

Then, as though guided by a mystical puppeteer, my hand moved of its own accord. My fingers curled around the stone and I reached into the water to wet it. My hand moved up and touched the stone to my forehead and then to my heart.

As I tossed the rock into the water, my mind directed my mouth to say, “I forgive them all” but something else came out:

“I forgive myself.”

I gasped and my wet hands flew up to cover my mouth. Tears shot from my eyes and a sob expelled itself from my lungs.

Suddenly, I understood.

All these many years I had been angry with myself. Angry for allowing myself to get into such a shameful spot, angry for not standing up for myself, and finally, angry for holding on to this painful story.

The release and freedom I had been hoping for now lifted me up and carried me back to the beach. Another person guided me back up the hill, the sharp rocks digging into my bare feet, but I didn’t care.

I entered the meeting hall and joyfully partook of the Earth ritual, smearing mud on my face with glee and burying my toes in the mound of earth that had been piled in the center of the room. My heart flew with the notes of the ancient African song that we sang as one blissful body.

I looked across the circle and saw Bruce. His blue eyes twinkled with tears and his wry smile evolved into joyous laughter. I smiled and joined in the laughter. Looking into each other’s eyes, we both knew.

I was free.

~ ~ ~

I’m sure you get the moral of this story, but here are some things to think about:

1. Sometimes it’s all about forgiving yourself. As much as we want it to be about “them”, only we ultimately have responsibility for ourselves.

2. Long-held anger only makes us a prisoner. If you’re still stewing about an old wound, set the prisoner free.

3. Take courage and try a new approach. Maybe it’s not as hippie-dippy as dancing to drums and smearing mud on your face, but a new process might be just enough to shake those old feelings lose.

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About the author

Bobbi Emel is a psychotherapist who specializes in helping people face life’s significant challenges and regain their resiliency. In addition to seeing clients in her private practice, Bobbi is a well-regarded speaker and writer. You can find her blog at The Bounce Blog

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21 thoughts on Forgiving Yourself (A Story)

  1. A lovely and touching, and all too common tale. In my experience, forgiving one’s self is one of the hardest, and most rewarding things we can learn to do. Bless you on your journey.

  2. Thank you, Tom. And you are right about self-forgiveness being rewarding. As Lewis Smedes said, it’s really about finding out you are the one who has been held prisoner for so long.

  3. Philip

    Bobbi, thank you for sharing your story. This story is very timely for me. I’m an undergrad finishing my last quarters of college, and I have a lot of regrets about how the last couple of years went. College has been a rough learning experience filled with my own mistakes and events outside of my control. I was high-achieving in high school, so I have high standards for myself and always expected to be able to handle all of Life’s curve balls. I never thought I would strike out, but I did. Often times, I would resented myself for not preventing or being prepared for the negative events. Only now, I’m finally learning to forgive myself.

  4. Tina

    Thank you Bobbi for sharing this story. The experiences resonated with me. What perfect timing for the approaching new year!

  5. Philip, thanks for sharing your own story. College is always a growth experience and sometimes that growth comes through pain, unfortunately. Besides the story written here, I had some times during my undergraduate work where I struck out, too. However – and I say this with 25 years of perspective – the things I learned about myself during those times have been invaluable.

    Since I love baseball analogies, remember that the most successful hitters fail 70% of the time.

    I wish you the best and am glad you are beginning to understand about the freedom of self-forgiveness.

  6. Tina, thanks so much! I’m glad my story resonated with you. I wish you all the best in the new year!

  7. Wendy

    Wow Bobbi that was powerful! Thank you! Wendy

  8. Thanks Bobbi for the very personal and touching sharing. Hope it will inspire others and get them to start forgiving ourselves, sometimes we don’t even realize that we are still holding on to the hurt, guilt and pain for so long. Thanks again and wishing you a great wonderful year ahead in 2012!

  9. Thank you for your kind words, Lawrence. That was my experience exactly – I was completely taken by surprise that I needed to forgive myself.

    I hope you have a terrific 2012!

  10. Elizabeth

    Bobbi, thank you for sharing your story. I want to move on with my life but can’t seem to forgive, I tend to blame others for all the pain in my life, but after listening, its me that’s keeping the pain as a prisoner in my heart and mind. Jealousy, hate, anger, regret, has prevented me from loving the person that needs it most “me”. I don’t have a beach or a retreat but I do have paper, a pen, matches, a pond and a stone. Any other thoughts or positive words would greatly help me find myself again like when we were kids and the world was just our playground before we knew how to hurt.

    Sincerly my New Years resolution 2012

    • Hi Elizabeth, thanks for reading my story. You’ve already taken a big step by realizing you need to forgive yourself. As you saw with my experience, sometimes it takes awhile (and a bit of a miracle) to figure that out. Also, I was lucky enough to have a big “aha!” experience. Forgiveness isn’t usually like that – it really is a process. Try to have patience with yourself as you work toward forgiving yourself.

      It is helpful to create small rituals for yourself where you let go of old hurts and anger that you are holding onto. You may want to have friends witness these rituals or do them yourself. Also, a good therapist can be a valuable guide along your path to self-forgiveness.

      I wish you peace and contentment on your journey.

  11. Kass

    I can be a perfectionist at times, and when I can’t meet those expectations or when I present myself in ways I wish I didn’t, I have this strong disappointment in myself. Florence and the Machine’s song “Shake it Off” made me realize that I need to learn to forgive myself and shake it off when those regrets start to chime in.

    Thanks for sharing your personal experience. I recommend this article and that song to anyone “bottling it up”.

    • Hi Kass,

      I’m glad you have learned the important act of self-forgiveness. Make sure you share your wisdom with everyone you can! Thanks for your kind words about my story.

  12. Dear Bobbi,
    Human mind is reactive. In every situation it responds in two ways, either negative or positive. Negative response leads to anger, hatred and revenge. On the other hand positive leads to forgiveness.
    Forgiveness is one of the most important virtues of mankind. First, let us learn to forgive self and then to everyone else in this world. The best way to take revenge from someone is to forgive him. It is the sweetest revenge. Next comes seeking forgiveness from others for our sins and mistakes.
    Forgiveness is a noble and courageous act. For learning to forgive others and seeking forgiveness, one must be groomed from childhood to think in positive direction.
    Wishing you the best of everything in your life, now and always.

  13. Thank you for sharing this story, I really enjoyed reading it, very timely for me as well.

  14. Thanks, Becky! I’m so glad the timing was right for you and I wish you the best.

  15. Goodness me,what a great story. Forgiving is so hard, yet so liberating…

  16. Thanks for your kind words, VeehCirra. And you are right, forgiveness is both hard and freeing at the same time.

  17. Thanks for this great story… so difficult to forgive and much more forgiving oneself! I also have a similar story I’d like to share with you all…

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