When I read the news the other morning, I learned that Desmond Tutu had passed away. For those that don't know the name, Desmond Tutu was a noble peace prize recipient and best known for his influence and work during apartheid. He wrote an excellent book called "The book of forgiving" which I highly recommend for WS and BS alike. In it, Desmond comes to terms with the process of trying to forgive the unforgivable and helps to define what forgiveness actually means and what it looks and feels like. There is a chapter in there especially for people like us, those who have hurt others and now face the impossible task of figuring out how to, and if we even can/should, forgive ourselves. This book brought a lot of clarity to both my wife and me during our recovery and helped us to reframe what forgiveness means to us, and how to implement it in our lives and our recovery efforts.
Forgiveness is a hot topic on SI sometimes. There are those that believe forgiveness is a "white-wash" or rug-sweeping. Some feel that forgiveness implies that "everything is now okay" and that life is "back to normal" as if nothing ever happened. My point of view, and the one that Desmond espouses in the book, is that forgiveness is for the victim, not the abuser. In fact, Desmond states that the abuser need not even know that forgiveness has taken place, because it's not for THEM. It's for YOU. Forgiveness is not a "pass". It is not a justification nor an absolution. Rather, it is a release. It is a decision to stop carrying around pain and anger that serves no purpose other than to hurt ourselves. Hate and anger are trauma, they are traumas that we willingly inflict on ourselves, a self-punishment that we inflict on our own psyche in order to "punish" the guilty by proxy, except it doesn't work that way, does it? You can hate on someone all day long, it doesn't affect them, it only affects you. Holding on to anger, grief, hate and fear is a self-punishment. We carry it around because sometimes it feels as if that's all we have. It becomes our identity, our history, our story, and as confusing as it may sound, it can be scary to let those feelings go even though they only serve to hurt ourselves. We don't want to invalidate our own pain and hurt. Sometimes it can feel as if we let go of the hurt, that it might mean it becomes forgotten, that WE become forgotten, or that it never mattered to begin with. We embrace the pain because we know it well. When we wake up every morning and feel the hurt, the grief, we know we are still alive and that our pain hasn't been forgotten or dismissed as unimportant.
Forgiveness is not about releasing the abuser from their culpability and accountability. It is about letting go of that anger, and finding ways to use our pain and grief to grow, to motivate ourselves to heal, to become better people as a result. It is about not seeing our pain as our identity, rather it is about seeing ourselves as survivors, as good people worthy of living a life free from daily and constant hate and dismay. It is like taking a shower and washing off the debris of pain. It is a conscious decision and choice to let go of that which hurts us and serves no purpose, and instead of replacing it with thoughts and feelings that raise our quality of life, and that brings us closer to loving ourselves and living our best lives.
So how does that work when you are the abuser? How, and why, do we seek to forgive ourselves as WS's? What does that look like and why would we want to do it? Most of all, is forgiving ourselves just more rug-sweeping and avoidance of accountability? How do we forgive ourselves while still focusing on our own accountability? How do we use it to promote change? How do we define it when questioned about it?
I thought this might be a good topic for discussion, and with the new year upon us, perhaps it's a good time to step back, take stock of our own feelings and goals, and figure out how self-forgiveness plays into "the work" that the WS must do.
For me, self-forgiveness was paramount to getting out of the "pit of shame". The shame I carried from all the hurt I caused and damage I've done was overwhelming to the point where it was impossible for me to see, hear or care about my spouse... or anyone else quite frankly... because it created a trigger that was set off every time the affair or anything about me was mentioned. It is a sad, pathetic and painful way to live, and it solves nothing. In fact, after infidelity especially, it makes things worse. It blocks the very things we need to find in ourselves in order to recover and heal from our sins, all of them, not just infidelity. Shame is a great tool to initiate change, but like anything else, it is to be used sparingly and in reasonable amounts. Think of shame like water. In small amounts, you can drink it, or cook with it. But in large amounts, you'll drown. Most WS's I speak to these days are drowning in it. I know I was too. The way to stop that is to reduce our shame, and increase our self-respect. And to that end, we begin with self-forgiveness.
If I could offer one piece of advice to WS's stuck in shame, it is this. Your life is a story, an ongoing story, and the affair(s) you had are simply chapters in that story, not the end of the book. The story of your life can take a dramatic and unexpected turn (the best books always do!) and how that change takes place is up to you. You can wallow in your shame or you can do something about it. You made poor choices before and they landed you in the doghouse. So what effect would making better choices have moving forward? LEARN from your failures, don't BECOME them! I get it... these things are easier to say than do, right? That's true. But nothing in life comes easily. Think about how much work went into having the damn affair in the first place... the lying, sneaking, hiding, gas-lighting, living a double life at all times... and you did all that for a shitty result. Ugh. So at least be willing to put in that time and effort towards getting a BETTER outcome. Love yourself and your partner enough to make finding a better outcome a priority. Even if your marriage ends... trust me, your spouse would STILL want you to pull your head out of your ass and grow as a result.
Look, self-forgiveness may not save your marriage, and I'm not claiming it will. But it can and will save YOU if you let it. And I think you may be amazed at what a profound effect it has on your daily life and in every relationship you have, including the one with yourself. Once I was able to get out of the pit of shame, things in our relationship started to change, for the better. When I wasn't busy crawling under a rock every day, I then had time to spend working on repairing what I had done. When I wasn't buried under messages of "you're a bad person", I was then able to actually hear and feel and understand what my wife was saying to me, how SHE was feeling and what she needed. It made my relationships at work better, the relationships with my kids too. I am a happier person today, heck, I'm a BETTER person today than I was before. It sucks to no end that infidelity was the catalyst for this change and I'd give anything to change that ugly fact. But the extreme price paid also motivates me to put all the more effort into it, and to make sure I never go back down that path again. The changes I put into place all but guarantee that. My life is easier now because I know who I am and what's important to me, and I now have healthy boundaries and self-respect that answer most questions for me regarding "how to feel or respond" to things. In all cases, I do so in a way that preserves as much respect for myself and others as possible. I put myself first in all things, but in a HEALTHY way, and sometimes, putting yourself first means taking a step back and allowing another to shine, or hurt, or have their moment. You don't have to become a rock star, you just have to love yourself.