(Originally published for The Dragontree)

In Forgiveness: The Ultimate Cleanse I wrote about forgiveness as the ultimate psychological cleanse. The emphasis of the article was on forgiving other people, because most of us have plenty of work to do in this area, and it’s pretty easy to identify the resentment we have toward others, whether it’s our parents, ex-lovers, and bosses, or more distant relations, like Dick Cheney and Monsanto. But I believe the massive submerged part of the resentment iceberg is all about ourselves.

In my opinion, whether we’re aware of it or not, we blame ourselves for everything about our life that isn’t the way we think it should be. Like I said, this portion of the iceberg is usually hidden, so I expect many people will disagree with me on this. I didn’t believe it until just a few years ago. Before then, I would have told you, I’m not someone who blames myself when things go wrong.

But through my meditation practice, I gradually discovered a wellspring of self-blame, shame, and guilt within myself. It’s not that these feelings just arose in me; I unearthed them. They’ve been there since childhood. And my sense is that they’re not just my feelings . . . they belong to all of us. The focus of this self-blame is so broad that I believe it’s simply an inevitable product of the way we socialize each other.

Probably, it stems from an early time in our lives when the people around us began to teach us about the world. There were so many words, labels, and behaviors to learn, and the goal of every lesson was to be right. When we named the color, or peed in the right place, or ate all our food, we did it right and got the reward of praise, love, and approval. And when we drew on the wall, or hit someone, or had the wrong answer, we didn’t get this reward. Maybe we even got disapproval or anger.

And since most of this positive and negative feedback came from our parents – the people responsible for our very survival – we naturally made being right one of our highest priorities. We became experts at being – or at least, appearing – right. Two important secondary behaviors developed from this training. First, we taught our subconscious to habitually identify wrong things – in us and in others – because it’s at least as important to know what’s wrong, and to avoid being wrong, as it is to be right. Second, we learned to internally preside over the judgment of our own behavior. By policing ourselves, scolding ourselves, and withholding approval from ourselves, we could get better at presenting only rightness to the world.

As we moved into the school phase of life, this training became more rigorous. Our teachers and peers joined in on the process of critiquing us, and we began to see that certain things about us could be wrong that we never thought about controlling before – like the size of our body, or the color of our skin, or the way our hair looked. And if we were brought up in a sin-based religion, we were likely taught that, despite being “created in God’s image,” we had messed up really bad. All of this served to strengthen our internal critic.

But our self-criticism has been such a constant thing that many of us barely even notice it. Still, even in psychologically healthy folks, I’d guess that there are dozens of thoughts each day that go something like: “I’m not working fast enough,” “I should be thinner,” “There’s something wrong with me,” “I shouldn’t have said that,” “I should have done that differently,” “I should be better at . . .,” “I should be more accomplished at this age than I am,” “I’m a mediocre parent,” “Why am I so bad at making money?,” “I’m not doing anything impressive,” “I’m not very pretty,” “I screwed up my life,” and more. Self-blame thoughts like these make us less happy, and they cause us to withhold approval from ourselves, even if they don’t seem so bad. Even if we think, “But it’s true.

Forgiveness – continual forgiveness, where we just let ourselves and the world BE however we are – is the means to liberation. There’s a line I love from A Course in Miracles: “God does not forgive because he has never condemned.” All the condemnation comes from within our own minds, and forgiveness is the ultimate cleanse.

I believe that a big part of our personal evolution is about letting more and more love into our lives. We can all have as much love as we want, but we restrict it from certain areas of our lives because we don’t accept them or we think they should be different. So, there are these dark nooks and crannies in our consciousness where we haven’t let the love in. The more of those we have, the less light, free, joyful, and spontaneous we feel. They’re like sandbags weighing down our hot air balloon. And when we forgive, it’s like cutting the strings.

When we start forgiving habitually, not only do we begin to experience a lightness and freedom that for many of us has been absent for decades, but we also begin to recognize just how powerful we are. Even if we’ve been exploring personal development or spirituality for a while, we’ve probably had an outlook that amounts to looking for and appreciating the goodness in each situation. Perhaps we’ve even come to realize that there’s a certain lightness to be found in every circumstance. But when we start living forgiveness, and we shed mountains of blame, a new understanding may emerge: we don’t need to find the goodness in every situation; we bring the goodness to every situation. You are the light of the world, as soon as you choose it.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten