Karen Rivers

how to forgive yourself: an exercise. (For F.S.)

Karen Rivers

Let's say that you're talking to someone.   The conversation is about forgiveness.  The question is posed:  What would make you forgive yourself?  An event?   Love?  Would love be ... enough?

What would you say?

Would you lie?

The truth is that I don't forgive myself.

Do you?

Have you?


Here is a writing exercise.   Find a piece of paper.   It doesn't have to be blank.   It can be the back of an envelope, preferably an opened bill that you can't currently afford to pay.   Say this bill represents things that you've bought in your past that you no longer remember buying.   Say this bill is for things you've consumed and forgotten.  Say that you need the money now, to hold on the house, but it is already gone.  You spent it on things that didn't matter.  Say this bill, and the fact of it, is one of the things for which you probably should forgive yourself.  It's an easy one.   It is just a bill.

And, after all, you didn't know then that you would be trying to hang on now.

You couldn't know.

Find a pen.

Write the following sentence on the white space on the back of the envelope:  I forgive myself.   Feel the pen pressing into the layers of folded paper.   

Doodle around the words.

Draw a bird.  The bird looks terrible so make the bird into an elaborate scroll.   The scroll looks stupid.  Frame the words with this stupid, ugly scroll.   Scribble over the scroll.   Look at the words.   Scribble on them.  Feel the way the pen feels too sharp for the paper and rips through in a few places.   Cringe because of the sound it makes.  Stop.

Trace over the half-obscured words with your finger, so you can feel the way the pen bit into the paper but really left no mark on you.   Look at your blue fingertip.   Make a fingerprint.


So that didn't work.

Throw the bill away.   Looking at that envelope will only remind you of what a jerk you really are, doing lame self-help exercises in lieu of, say, paying the bill.


Try again.

This time, go to a mirror.  Stand in front of it.  Do not be distracted by the colour and texture of the skin on your winter-red cheeks.  Talk to yourself as though you are someone you don't know.   Try not to feel crazy.   Do not moisturize.  Not right now.

Say the following words out loud:

"I forgive you."

Point to yourself.   Do not laugh.  Do not under any circumstances begin fixing your hair, out of habit.  

Repeat the phrase, "I forgive you" until it begins to sound like gibberish and you become worried the neighbours can hear you from the walkway and are preparing to call some sort of authorities to report the obvious loss of your mind.


Go ahead and wash your face.   This isn't going to work.

Make a list of all the things you've forgiven yourself for in the past.   Do it on the computer.   (The pen idea was bad because it was too distracting.   There was doodling and the fact of the bill itself, which isn't even one of the things on your looming list of things for which you ought to forgive yourself.)   

Try remembering awful things that you've said and done.

List the people you have hurt.

Then remember what made you forgive yourself.

Realize that you never have.  Not even once.   Not even for things that no one remembers, or even cared about in the first place.

Realize that you are awful to yourself.

Hate yourself for it.

Add "hating myself" to the list of things for which you must forgive yourself right now before you lose yourself in this unforgiving morass of self-loathing.

Realize that saying "I forgive myself" is exactly the gibberish that it sounds like.   Saying it does nothing to loosen the tight bolts of unforgivingness that keep you together.   You are not a forgiving person.  You have never forgiven anyone.  In some ways, your inability to forgive yourself or anyone else feels like the glue that is holding you together.

The list of people you do not forgive begins with the boy across the road who once threw pinecones at you so hard and so relentlessly that he made your ear bleed and then laughed about it.  His name was Ben.   Ben was the first person who you did not forgive.

You did not forgive Sean, who on the first day of school picked you up and shotputted you across the playground, knocking the wind out of you and leaving you dazed for a day.

You did not forgive your best friend in seventh grade for deciding, on the eve of 8th grade, that you were no longer good enough or cool enough to keep her company.

The list of boys you do not forgive is long.  The ones who embarrassed you, the ones who liked you, and the ones who didn't.

You do not forgive the men, either, the ones you loved who let you down.

Especially the last one.

You definitely do not forgive the girl with the moon-shaped face, her eyes greedy for all that you had, which is now hers.

You do not forgive yourself either.   It's in you, in the veins and sinews and tissues of you, this list of the ways you've been wronged and the names of the wrong-doers.   There is a catalogue of what happened and who said what.   There, among your ivory bones, is all the detritus of the ways you've been wronged and have wronged others.

Lately, your chest has been hurting.  You imagine that all these unforgiven wrongs have been pushed to the center of you, your beating heart, and there they are, blocking everything.   Your blood trying to get past it, pounding loudly in your ears.   The pain pulling like a Charley horse.

You must get this unforgiveness out of your heart.

Writing it on an envelope is not going to help.

You must do this thing.  There is going to be no event that triggers this change, there is only you, with your pile of bills and blank screen and awkward complexion, holding on to all these things as though they still matter more than the things that should.  That do.

It gets confusing at this point.

Because it isn't a narrative, it isn't clear.  

There is no defining moment.  

There is just this moment, amongst all the other moments.  It is the same and it is different.

It is the moment when, instead of writing it down, or talking to your reflection, you allow yourself to let go.  No, that's wrong.  That makes it seem like the things themselves want to be released, but you are holding them back.   They are stuck to you with barnacle-like tenacity.   It's not that you have to let them go.  It's that you have to make them leave, pry them off one by one.

Not of all of them.   Just one thing at a time.   All at once is too much to ask of yourself.  Remember?  The point of this is to be kind.   To yourself.  

Gently pry off one barnacle. Take a time when you said or did something stupid, years ago, for which you have yet to forgive yourself.   Remove it willfully.   Cry.   It's so stupid to cry about this one small thing, but there it is.

Now pick something bigger.   Someone recent.

Force yourself to forgive it.

Saying it out loud doesn't have any meaning.   You must feel it.  You must breathe as though it is gone, dislodged from where you were storing it, a greying-white tenacious fist-sized barnacle blocking the flow near the large vessel of your heart.


Is it gone?



When your friend posed the question about forgiveness, he wondered out loud if love was the thing.  If being loved by someone else could be the trigger to forgiving yourself.  

You said, "No."

Now you aren't so sure.

Love is kindness.  Sometimes kindness must creep in and loosen the bolts and glue of this unforgivingness.  Maybe it is one of the ingredients that can make the barnacles release their grip on you.

You want to email him now and say, "Maybe."

At the time, you thought maybe it needed to be something MORE.   A near-death experience.  A huge life event.  Now you aren't so sure.

In the moment of death, do you really forgive yourself?  Or do you simply realize -- too late -- that none of it actually mattered as much as you tried to make it matter?   

Whereas love, a love that you actually accept?  Maybe there is more power in that, after all.  Because isn't the very act of accepting love the same as the act of forgiving yourself?  Because to accept love, you must feel worthy of love.  

And to feel worthy, you must also have done the work of forgiving the unforgiveable.  

(It is work.  Make no mistake.)

Then, and only then, your heart will be ready:  smooth and unbarnacled, showing only faint marks of the scars where the barnacles once clung.  The blood will then be moving painlessly, allowing love to move gently in to the flow of its unhampered beat.