Hello everybody, welcome to episode 175 of Optimal Living Advice, the podcast where we take any questions you might have about the many struggles of life and get them answered for you here on the show. Today's question is from a listener wondering how to forgive herself and move on from trauma.
I’m your host, certified life coach Greg Audino reminding you before we begin that if you have a question you would like help with on the show, we welcome you to email it to us at advice AT oldpodcast.com
And we’ve got a long one for you today, my friends, but a really involved and brave question about owning up to past mistakes and understanding where they came from in the first place. Very proud of our asker today for how she’s responding to some tough happenings in her life, but sometimes you need a little help to respond as well as you’d like to. Let’s see if we can push her along on her journey to self-forgiveness. Here’s her story and her question…
QUESTION: “I've had some trauma that took place when I was 16. For as long as I can remember I've tried to forget it and I do for a short time but then it's time to go to Nana's for the holidays and I find myself cringing at the thought of once again acting like nothing ever happened.
Over the years I've developed some very bad habits. Drinking, sometimes cutting, had some DUI's. I've caused myself more trauma I think because at my core so much of what I've done is not ME and I know that.
About a year and a half ago I met a man that I immediately felt a connection with. Now maybe that was because when I met him it was 8 months into the year and a half I made it alcohol free. So i think I was just very open to him. BUT as time went on all those old feelings of self hate and insecurity came creeping back in. He never asked why I didn't drink and I never told him what it did to me. It makes me sad and then I get down on myself and start acting out in self destructive ways. Anyways he ended up leaving me, I don't blame him. I could never bring myself to tell him about my past. If I can't accept it how could he?
At 34 years old I’ve decided it’s TIME to HEAL!!! For good and for ME. So, I am just wondering how to forgive myself. The feeling I have now tells me everything up to this point cannot be undone but I can learn from it and grow from it and maybe help someone along the way.”
A very courageous question. Thank you asker for sending it in. Honestly I think you’re well on your way to self-forgiveness just because of a few certain ways that you’ve formulated this question.
Let me get into my answer though and by the end, hopefully you’ll get what I mean.
First things first, it’s important for you to be clear about what exactly you’re forgiving yourself for.
Life As a Kid
I don’t know what trauma it is that you endured, but I do know this: many times we’re faced with trauma – especially as kids when we our understandings of cause and effect in the world are still skewed – we try to make sense of it as we do with everything.
We try to understand why it happened so we can have some answers and a sense of certainty, at the very least so we can stand a chance at preventing the same pain in the future.
And when we’re kids and we’re especially unsure of these types of answers, it becomes very easy to say that we are the guilty ones. If something so terrible happens that I can’t make sense of, surely I must be the one who deserved it somehow and brought it on myself.
And if an adult who doesn’t believe us or is the perpetrator themselves tells us this, it’s a narrative that’s extra likely to stick, because as kids, we’ve followed the directions of adults our whole lives at that point.
Were You Really Guilty of Something?
So what I think you need to do is think back on what happened to you and really reflect on whether or not you were indeed guilty of something. Try your best to detach and look at the scenario objectively.
Plug other people into it. Plug the most innocent people that have the best of intentions into your spot. Are they still guilty every time?
Chances are you’ll be able to find that for other people, they were just doing what they thought was best and didn’t know any better at the time. What are the odds that you, a naive 16 year old desperate for answers, were also doing what you thought was best given the information and molding you had? I’d say the odds are extraordinarily high.
And the same goes for all the bad habits you established after the fact. They weren’t bad for the sake of bad. They were coping mechanisms whose negative effects on yourself and others were not available for you to fully sympathize with because of the mental space you were in.
But you realize this now, which is wonderful and all you could ask of yourself at this moment in time.
Let’s focus on the DUIs specifically – probably what everyone will agree is the most extreme and “unforgivable” item that you listed. I want everyone listening up right now, because obviously DUIs are serious and we all have very strong personal narratives about them.
Like everything you listed, this too was an irresponsible response to feelings that you had a hard time making sense of. And this is really the truth behind any crime we commit against others or ourselves.
Should these crimes be answered to and should those who commit them be held responsible? Yes. But that doesn’t have to be a shameful process if we’re patient with how certain, untreated traumas result in harmful behavior. We should not shy away from how harmful the behavior is and minimize it; rather we should use the severity to get that much more serious about healing and not vilifying anyone.
Anger as a Reaction
While anger is a natural response to something like this, what does it accomplish? All that someone in your position can do is acknowledge that it happened because you were not in a clear headspace, take full responsibility, apologize truthfully to whomever needs to be apologized to and work to get into a clear headspace now – which you’re starting to do – so that you’re less likely to replicate the same actions in the future.
Those who have lost loved ones to drunk drivers will understandably feel as though this is somehow not enough. But as long as what I’ve said is taken with utmost seriousness, what else can there be with a past that can’t be changed?
Taking Responsibility for Healing
If you want to stand the best chance at forgiving yourself, take responsibility for everything – from the times you weren’t guilty to the ones that you were. If you discover that you really were not at fault for your initial trauma, take responsibility for healing rather than passing the buck onto whomever it was that harmed you.
As for the other incidents that have happened since (particularly the DUIs), again, hold yourself accountable, yet remember where they came from. Remember that they were born of certain events, and that neither those events, nor the way you acted out because of them, define you.
You’ve already proven this to yourself by being sober for a year and a half. You’re not destined to have a drinking problem with no say in the matter. It’s important to remember that about any of the falsehoods you may be telling yourself.
Summary: Self-Forgiveness to Move On From Trauma
And finally, I advise that you share this with your loved ones. Be honest about what you did wrong and how you’re trying to better yourself.
You’ve proven to yourself once with your ex-boyfriend that this stuff is harmful when you hold it in and don’t own up to it.
Because that’s a form of shaming – not letting part of yourself breathe and be out in the open.
No more of that.
A lot of lessons in this one, friends. I understand where parts of it, particularly about drunk driving, might have been uncomfortable as well, but that’s exactly why we needed to lean into it.
Our asker is not going to heal and forgive herself if she shies away from the least responsible of her actions, and those who want the death penalty for drunk driving are not going to heal themselves and find the greatest form of compassion for others if they shy away from it. Hoping you were all patient enough to stay with that and believe in it today.
We’re finished though, so I appreciate you all sticking around and supporting our asker as well as the show. We’ll be back for more soon, we’ll be back on Friday to open up 2021 as a matter of fact. It’s been a great year, OLA. Let’s use some of the ideas we’ve hopefully reflected on this year to start off on the right foot next year. Looking forward to seeing you there on day 1. Take care friends and happy new year.