The 3 Most Important Words to Tell Yourself

Today’s post is about forgiveness—not forgiving others, but yourself.

The three most important words you can tell yourself are: “I forgive myself.” Obviously, in a situation where you are at fault, it is important to recognize and accept your responsibility. But many times you will find yourself mad at no one but you, for something you might perceive as being a failing on your part that, in reality, is a completely normal human event.

When you clean a cabinet, you don’t just grab the largest, dirtiest things, throw them in the trash, and call it a day. You take your rag or your duster and you go after the corners, the cracks in the wood, the areas where grime and dust can accumulate. You must treat your mind the same way: little moments of self-hatred can build up over time until your mental cabinet is filled with tiny jars of bad memories. You need to forgive yourself for those moments, the times you felt weakest and smallest and hated yourself for it.

Self-forgiveness is an intrinsic part of self-healing. As I said in my recent blog post, it’s important to heal yourself before seeking to heal others. The saying that “hurt people hurt people” still holds true. Trauma isn’t something that comes from the ground and seeps into your bones; it’s an outside force that requires internal attention. It isn’t limited to major events, a specific kind of abuse, or a certain set of circumstances. It can come from seemingly minor things that cling to your brain, like spaghetti sauce in Tupperware. You can scrub and scrub, but until you take the time and follow the correct procedure, that red stain isn’t coming out. And neither will those negative thoughts clouding your mind.

A side effect of America’s rising “hustle culture” is the focus on keeping your head down and pushing through the negativity. But milk left on the counter isn’t going to stay fresh, no matter how much you ignore it. Your brain can take only so much before it buckles, and ignoring the negativity for too long will only lead to pain. There’s so much small stuff that accumulates and we ignore. It took me years to find out that a single childhood event from one particular day had shaped the entire way I interacted with my peers, and I never would have known if I hadn’t gone to therapy and taken the time to address myself.

Before you forgive yourself, you must know what you’re forgiving. Summon up the memory that makes you cringe the most, and hold it in your mind. Picture yourself locking eyes with it, holding it in your head, refusing to let go or look away. Go through the entire memory, from start to finish, and analyze every single thing that happens. Afterward, ask yourself: Was I behaving in a reasonable and appropriate way for that moment? Was I acting within the bounds of my understanding? Do I now have the capacity to forgive myself for it?

Now breathe. Deep breaths in, deep breaths out, paying attention to the feeling of the air moving through your mouth and nostrils. Then stand, walk to a mirror, make eye contact with your reflection, and say, “I forgive myself.” It may take a few tries, but eventually you will find that certain memories no longer bother you the way they used to.

Sam Bigham, who is working as an intern at RiseUP Cooperative, grew up in the hills of North Georgia. As a senior communication major at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, his primary focus is public relations and copy writing.

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