It was a gray and wet winter day. Raindrops were running down the windows of my house and the leafless trees added to the bleakness. My dog, curled up like a croissant in his dog bed, was watching me with big questioning eyes as I slumped on the couch, wiping away tears. I should be happy, I thought to myself. I had a successful career in biotech, a beautiful and devoted significant other, friends and family, and an amazing new house. I had so much going for me. What was wrong with me?
My heart was painfully pounding in my chest, and the world seemed to be closing in on me. Something about my life isn’t working. I felt especially disconnected and distant in my relationship. Spiraling into the abyss, I started questioning everything. Why are we so disconnected? Why don’t I feel secure? I had a string of previous relationships, with healthy successful people, that I walked out on.
Sitting on that couch and watching the rain rolling down the window like tears, I decided to hit the send button on an email I had written to my significant other. Cowardly, I told her that I am leaving. She deserved so much better than me abruptly leaving and providing this shocking and hurtful news over email.
The day after I emailed her, my heart rate slowed. Disconnected from my emotions, I buried myself with work and reading books. My world grew more confusing and disorienting. It got to the point where I’d disassociated so much that it felt like I was just an actor in a movie when I talked to my ex. The only part of my life that I was on top of was work.
My emotions periodically re-emerged and my chest closed back up when the pain became too much. Teeter-tottering between numbness and anxiety, I desperately tried to balance myself. But it was too late – the dam that had held my suppressed childhood trauma at bay had broken. I was drowning in the memories and vaguely familiar feeling washed over me. Visions of me pounding on the plexiglass barrier between me and my mom when I was visiting her in prison, remembering tiny fragments of a neighborhood friend get shot and killed, and images of my stepfather trying to make crystal meth in the microwave all flooded my mind.
Sleep was no longer a reprieve from my waking life; nightmares of war and chaos terrorized me many nights. My pants started to hang loosely from my 125-pound frame as the food was no longer appealing.
I needed help.
Fortunately, I started seeing a therapist who specializes in trauma. After months of getting to know me, my therapist nonchalantly dropped a diagnosis on me “You have complex PTSD,” she said as if she was talking about the weather.
Complex PTSD sounded serious. Stunned, I stammered “Can I fix this? And, how long will it take?”
Three years went by, and I healed considerably through therapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), mindfulness meditation, and neurofeedback. I own my healing and do the work. It is difficult to work and a process of trial and error. It’s a series of two steps forward and one step back. Falling and getting back up. Eventually, triggers and nightmares faded and I stay consistently connected to my emotions.
However, the shame about sabotaging and running from relationships was a heavy presence in my daily life. The guilt about hurting people was eating me alive. The belief that I was a terrible person haunted me. Still. Stuck, and unable to move forward.
One day, the lightbulb went on in my head that the next step in my journey of moving forward was through forgiving myself. But the question was, how?
These are the steps that worked for me.
- Monitor my thoughts – pay attention to my thoughts and label thoughts about myself as self-loving, neutral, or self-loathing.
- Question negative thoughts about myself – was my intention to hurt anyone? No. Was I doing the best I could at that point in time? Yes. Does forgiving myself mean that I am letting myself off the hook to take responsibility for my behaviors and actions? No, quite the opposite. It freed up bandwidth to focus on doing better in the present. Do I put in the effort to learn and grow? Yes.
- Decide – I simply made a conscious choice to forgive myself.
- Apologize – I apologized for my actions. I read up on how to give a meaningful apology. There is a lot of information out there on how to give a constructive apology. I stumbled many times because I was not apologizing effectively.
- Give self-compassion – I visualized myself at the time I did the hurtful behaviors and saw how much I was hurting, struggling, and trying. This gave me empathy for me.
- Incorporate kind self-talk – One of my goals is to spread kindness. I established the practice of speaking as kind to myself as I want to speak to others. I am more kind to others when I am kind to myself.
For me, change is a process that I iterate on until I have a breakthrough. I had to learn, refine and repeat the steps above several times before I forgave myself.
Forgiving ourselves for past behaviors frees us to move forward and live better. Yet, I didn’t believe that I deserved to forgive myself until I understood I will be able to treat others better if I treat myself better. Forgiving yourself is not a selfish act. It lightens your load and is a gift to yourself and the other people in your life.
Bio: Sara Church is a biotechnology executive, high school teacher, and a writer. She has transformed her Complex PTSD into a force for love and strength. Her first book, about overcoming trauma, will be published this fall 2021. She enjoys spending time with her family, snowboarding, reading, and traveling. Visit her: https://twitter.com/sarachurch