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When You Forgive Yourself for the ‘Unforgiveable’

The Art of Forgiving

Four years prior to the message, we had been in a long-term relationship. We had started dating when we were teenagers, and six hormone-fuelled years followed; we became each others’ everything, and then as we stood in the face of adulthood, our everything changed. We drifted apart, we began on different internal paths, yet our relationship continued. We both knew the relationship was not in a good place, that much was obvious, yet neither of us wanted to face the truth and what it meant. 

I think we both felt lonely and unfulfilled. He tried to fill this hole with alcohol, new friends and reckless behaviour. I filled mine by meeting someone else.

In all the disconnect, I found connection with another man. It had not been my intention to be unfaithful, it developed slowly, yet with each progression, I continued. My guilt was pushed down by the excitement of my secret, the adrenaline of the danger, and the warmth of my developing feelings for this new lover.

Looking back, I see I was out of alignment with my integrity, I was acting out and hurting both myself and my partner. Though I don’t regret the ending of the relationship, I regret my actions that led to it and the pain that followed. 

Starting on the Path to Forgiveness

The surprise message I received was a critical moment for us both. He had reached out as he wanted to forgive, he wanted to salvage what he could of the friendship that had underpinned our relationship. I wanted this too, our friendship had been a beautiful thing, and it’s absence had left a hole in both our lives.  However, for him to come to peace with the past hurt, for our friendship to blossom once more, we needed to meet on a deeper level; a level that I could not delve into when I was overshadowed with regret. To allow us both to move on from that point in our lives, I needed to move my negative feelings out of the path. I needed to forgive myself. 

I knew the repercussions this stalemate of unforgiveness would be having on my ex as well as myself. The negative health effects of holding a grudge are well-known. Studies have found blood pressure and heart rate increase when people ruminate over a grudge, and those in the depths of unforgiveness have higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in their bodies. Holding onto grudges also impacts the way our body fights infections, putting grudge-holders at even more risk of getting sick. As forgiveness researcher Everett L. Worthington, Jr. says, “unforgiveness can take its toll on physical, mental, relational, and even spiritual health”. 

It has also been found that when we care deeply about someone, the act of forgiveness becomes even more important. Worthington defines forgiveness in close relationships to be about more than simply getting rid of negative emotions. In relationships we truly care about (which can include relationships with ourselves), forgiveness is also about “moving toward a net positive feeling”. In this situation, healing the hurt I had caused within myself was the best way to increase my mental, physical and spiritual health, and it would do the same for him. We discussed it and agreed it would be just what the doctor ordered and we began on the journey together. 

Genuine Self-Forgiveness

I knew I had to do more than to simply tell myself that I was forgiven. I had to put in the work to genuinely forgive. 

Sitting in my feelings, for the first time, I truly recognised the level of shame and guilt I still felt over my past actions. I realised how much I had been burying and carrying. Just as withholding forgiveness from others breeds resentment, not forgiving myself was laying a bed for pathological self-blame and suppressing my spiritual growth.

I wish I could say that I was able to easily forgive myself. That once I recognised what I must do and the negative effect of holding onto those corrosive feelings, that I could just let it all go. I wish I could say that it was an easy three-step process and here is how to do it, but I can’t. 

Genuine self-forgiveness is a process. It is a process that may look different for everyone. For me, it took many heart-opening sessions, both with myself and with my ex. I came to realise that there was also resentment I held for him and had to also work on letting that go. I needed to sit with the acceptance of violating my own values and move out of my fixation on self-incrimination. Most of all, I had to realise that I was worthy of forgiveness, that I had grown from the experience, that I was not that same person anymore. 

It took time. And then some more time. 

And eventually it happened. I forgave myself. I forgave him. He forgave me. He forgave himself. Together, we shut the door on the past, not to forget it, but to move forward with our lives and our friendship. 

It has been four years since I got that fateful message, and in that space our friendship has blossomed more and more. We have been there for each other during the tough times and the joyous, we have laughed, cried and everything in between. We are in contact less now; we live in separate states and lead different lives, both of us in healthy relationships, but there is an unspoken truth that we will always be there for each other. That our friendship is lifelong and can survive anything. 

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