One lesson my parents taught me, and that I learned well, in my childhood was that I’m not worthy of forgiveness. I’m not worthy of anybody forgiving me, even myself. Part of this was the expectation of perfection. I was never perfect (who in this world is). I always made mistakes. And worse, I was always “getting in trouble.”
“Getting in trouble” meant not only the initial punishment but after punishments as well. The initial punishment was always a beating. Sometimes only by one of them, sometimes by both. One memorable time had the two of them trading places for about 10 different times. Finally, on the eleventh time, they asked me who I wanted to “spank” me that time. I realized at that point that they had been taking turns, and that it was Mom’s turn to “spank” me, so I said, “Mom.” She asked why, did she not “spank” as hard as her husband? My response was completely truthful (and almost got me beat again), “No, you actually hit harder than he does, but you’ve been taking turns and he spanked me last, so it’s your turn now.”
Hey, she asked, right? If she didn’t want the truth (and I would have been beat for a lie if she found out it was a lie) she should never have asked.
Anyway, the after punishments would go on for weeks or months. One time, I had to write “I will not prevaricate.” Doesn’t sound to bad, does it? Except, I had to do it from September until almost Christmas. At first, I was allowed to sit at the table and write my lines. Then one day in October he decided to toy with me and asked me if I was tired of sitting at the dining room table all the time writing. I said I was, thinking I was finally done with the after punishment. No. He told me since I was tired of sitting at the dining room table, I could now stand at the dining room table and write. By the time I was really done with that after punishment, I’d written over 100,000 lines.
Of course, the whole time I was in after punishments, I was told how terrible I was for doing whatever it was that had gotten me punished (and some of the things were as simple as forgetting to take out the garbage or make the milk or not getting straight A’s on my report card). And when I was finally allowed off of whatever the after punishment was, I was still not forgiven.
They would let me know just how bad I was, and how I didn’t deserve forgiveness. And when I got in trouble the next time (not if, but when), I was reminded of all the times before when I’d gotten in trouble. I was told that since I was constantly in trouble I didn’t deserve forgiveness. It was a vicious cycle, really. Get in trouble, get punished, get told how terrible I was and how I didn’t deserve forgiveness, get the after punishment, finally get off trouble, get in trouble again and told how that proved I wasn’t good enough for forgiveness. Lather, rinse, repeat.
So, as you might expect, one thing that has been really difficult for me is learning to forgive myself. Forgiveness just wasn’t something that was in my vocabulary for a very long time. I made a mistake? I had to suffer for it, and if other people around me didn’t make me suffer, then I would make myself suffer by being miserable, by constantly reminding myself (and others) what scum I was.
Needless to say, this didn’t help my self esteem, constantly telling myself how terrible I was.
Self forgiveness is something that goes hand in hand with self esteem. As long as I hold a mistake (small or large) over my own head, I continue to beat myself up for it. I call myself names like stupid, and scum, and worse. I reinforce those feeling of inadequacy, of being less than human, of not being worthy of anything good, when I don’t forgive myself.
A few weeks ago, I wrote I was getting back on the horse with self-esteem in my own life. That my self esteem had taken a bit of a hit recently. What happened was that I ran a camping event for my local group. It was a financial success, but not a success by my definition of the term success.
My definition of a successful event is that when things go wrong (as they always will), if the paying guests don’t see the problems, then the event is a success. The event I organized had guests seeing some of the things that went wrong. Actually, just one thing that went wrong, but for me, it was enough.
As the organizer, the buck stops here. Yes, I had people advising me and some of the advise wasn’t completely on target. My assistant organizer didn’t do what he was supposed to do, which left me doing his job as well as mine. There were other problems, places where I made mistakes. Finally, on the main day of the event, I became deathly ill with heat stroke and had to be rushed to the hospital.
I castigated myself ten ways to Sunday about that whole situation. I apologized profusely to the leaders of my group for “failing” (and had them tell me that if this was a failure, then they wanted me to fail more). I’ve refused all opportunities to organize another event since then.
And all this because I couldn’t forgive myself for the mistakes I made and for being human. It has been six months since that event. Everybody else has moved on but me. I’m miserable, expecting to hear how I’ll never be allowed to organize another event as long as I live (or remain in this group). I’m expecting the leaders of this group to treat me like the parents did. To give me the cold shoulder. To not want to be near me.
They haven’t forgiven me because they see nothing to forgive. Yes, there were a few problems, but people had a lot of fun, and the event made the money we wanted and needed it to make. Only I haven’t forgiven myself.
Getting back on the horse isn’t easy.
Step one was figuring out I’d fallen off. That I’m okay, just as I am.
Step two is forgiving myself for my mistakes, real or imagined. If I’m okay, just as I am, then there’s no reason for me to continue to punish myself. There is no reason for me to be walking on eggshells waiting for people to ridicule me. There is no reason for me not to forgive myself.
And if it’s okay to forgive myself, then it’s okay to like myself. Which helps the self esteem to grow.
Just like self castigation can be a downward spiral, self esteem can be an upward spiral.