When I had To Forgive Myself: Not Easy

Sometime last year after a rather bruising encounter with a friend where she felt I needed to apologise, not only to her but to myself – I felt my body bubble up with rage.

I didn’t understand why she would ask that of me. I mean, I could accept that I needed to apologise to her and many other people for the drama which had erupted like molten lava on everyone’s faces. But for the life of me I could not convince myself that I needed to apologise to myself – for what?? why would I have to forgive me?

I could not reconcile her rationale.

For many years growing-up my sister and I learnt to cope with our lives by making up stories. We would hide under the red crochet bedspread and tell stories about love and relationships, in imaginary happy places where children were free, had enough to eat and could ask as many questions as they wanted without being punished, beaten or ignored for days.

With time we got so good at it we found more sophisticated (false) narratives and stories which we used to explain away any and every painful experience in our lives – to forget things that happened in the past especially through, Christianity. A faith which in many cases encouraged us to forgive without ceasing and also take the first opportunity to turn the other cheek.

We learnt never to acknowledge all the bad things that happened around us, to us, or the ones we love. We learnt that blood was not red and tears were a sincere request for more pain. We learnt that everything that was wrong or bad was our fault, we were sinners and we needed to pray and ask God for forgiveness.

Which we dutifully did.

So my friend telling me that I needed to apologise to myself made me angry because, it meant that, I didn’t deserve it. It meant that at some point I also did not deserve to be treated badly even if I was the one inflicting pain on myself. I did not deserve to treat myself the way that I had, to act like that, to expose myself to people and situations that could cause me so much harm and heartache.

I was keenly aware of other people’s pain, anger, discomfort, disappointment (especially in me). I could understand why other people would hate me, dislike me, ignore me, pretend I was not there, wish I were dead, say I was ugly, pretentious, selfish, self-absorbed, a fake coconut, wanna-be, black girl who likes white people, dumb, not like so and so who is happier, friendlier, more beautiful, intelligent, sexy etc. I got it when they said I was a poor, an insignificant nobody, who was crazy, stupid, who saw and remembered things that didn’t happen, who talked too much, attention seeking, prostitute and a whore who didn’t know her place. I understood when friends pretended not to know me, when they said things about me thinking I couldn’t hear them, when they plotted elaborate schemes to entrap me behind my back, while smiling and acting concerned about my well being in front of my face. I could get why boyfriends would choose to treat me badly, reject me, ghost me, gaslight me, blow hot and cold, lie, invalidate my reality, discard me, devalue me or my experiences: they had good reason to.

All of it I could accept – because I believed that everything that had happened to me was justified. It was my fault. I am a sinner and people were right to treat me poorly. They are the ones who deserved an apology from me. I needed to apologise to them for my existence, for breathing and opening my eyes.

So, having to forgive myself meant that I had to be aware of the pain other people had inflicted on me too, willingly, knowingly and even by mistake. I had to separate my actions from theirs. It also meant that I had to be aware, practice some form of radical acceptance of all the ways in which I was a co-creator, in denial, turning a blind eye or lying to myself about people’s real intentions. I had to be clear, to see and acknowledge that they were also wrong. Sometimes deliberately so.

Which meant that I was not the only “bad” person, that even I deserved an apology; being hurt is not being too sensitive or too insecure. That even me, the one full of mistakes and bad behaviour deserved better treatment, not only from other people but more importantly from myself as well. The moment I realised that I was not responsible for other people’s behaviour, is when I was better able to fully take responsibility for my own, both good and bad.

And also to finally, forgive me.

I recently took the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) questionnaire – which is a 10-item self-report measure developed to identify childhood experiences of abuse and neglect.

Unfortunately having an A+ score in this test (or more than 4 yes answers) is not a good thing. The questionnaire measures 10 types of childhood trauma. Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent who’s an alcoholic, a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness, and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as one. So a person who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who was beaten up has an ACE score of three.

The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study  uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional problems. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes and many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

Taking the test and confronting those childhood experiences helped me to fully understand the outdated coping mechanism I had adopted as a child, which were now ineffective in solving adult problems.

So my heroes had to die; they had to loose their capes and pedestals, crowns and beautiful gowns. I had to see people and relationships for what and who they really were, without pretence on my part in order to get to a place where I could forgive, myself for taking part in my own abuse as an adult. To say I am sorry that I said that to you, about you, I am sorry for making you so vulnerable to manipulation through feelings of guilt, shame, obligation and a misplaced sense of duty and responsibility. I am sorry I made bad choices which fractured your life in spectacular ways, I didn’t know any better. But you are not guilty of other people’s crimes.

This is why I can agree with Paolo Coelho when he says in his blog:

I’ve learned that it isn’t always enough to be forgiven by others. Sometimes you have to forgive yourself.”

Getting to a place where I could see why it was necessary for me to forgive myself was difficult but extremely beneficial to my overall mental health.

It made me lighter and better able to process and manage my own big emotions. It also doesn’t mean that life or I will be perfect, on the contrary. It just means that I will be better able to take care of myself: by establishing healthy boundaries, acknowledge my own faults, identifying my own triggers and manage them constructively.

A friend of mine put it another way she said it means that I can protect parts of me that haven’t been damaged, the relationships that didn’t crumble while I heal, and work on being a better human being not just for others, but especially for myself.

credits: artwork by Jenna D.

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