"The more I could forgive myself, though, the more I could forgive other people, many of whom I had placed on pedestals from which they were destined to fall. I had to get everything back into perspective: I’m not the greatest, or the worst. Where is my place in the middle?"~Sarah Hepola, Author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget
It's an odd thing to suggest, isn't it? That those of us who've been betrayed – those of us who haven't lied to and deceived our partners – begin by forgiving ourselves. What do we need forgiveness for? We behaved ourselves. We held ourselves to higher standards.
What do we need forgiveness for?
In my case...everything.
Behind my polished veneer, my look-how-fast-I-can-dance performance of the perfect wife and mother and writer, was terror that I was nowhere near as good as I pretended I was. That I wasn't worthy of the accolades, or the success, or the love.
I was only barely aware of that, of course. Mostly I performed so convincingly that I believed myself. I believed I had transformed myself from the shame-filled adolescent who feared that people would discover the truth about her hospitalized mother and her alcohol-soaked home life into someone respectable. Someone who needn't fear others' judgement. Except that I still did.
So when I discovered that my husband, the "perfect" spouse, was anything but, those monsters I'd barricaded behind closet doors came crashing through. Of course he cheated on me, was their rallying cry. I was a nobody. I came from dysfunction. I was a fraud. I didn't deserve love or loyalty.
How could I even think of forgiving my husband for what he'd done when I couldn't forgive myself for being who I was.
As long as I was fuelled by self-loathing for not being perfect enough to deserve a faithful husband, I could offer my husband nothing but loathing for his imperfection. And that's what I served up. Anger. Disgust. Hate. Shame.
I demanded to know how he could do this to me. How dare he?
I remember the day when I finally understood that his affair wasn't my failing, it was his. If I'd been a cartoon, there would have been lightbulb over my head.
And it was at that moment that the grip of loathing I felt for my husband – but which was really at myself – loosened a bit.
If it really wasn't my fault that my husband cheated, then maybe it wasn't my fault that my mother chose alcohol over me. Maybe it wasn't my fault that my father chose self-pity over me.
Maybe the only person who ever had to truly choose me was me.
It was a radical thought for someone who believed her value lay only in who she could be for other people. What if, my thought process went, I gave myself permission to be myself. Flawed. "Not the greatest, or the worst." Somewhere in the middle.
It felt terrifying.
But if I allowed myself that freedom, could I – dare I – allow my husband the same latitude to be neither the greatest nor the worst. In the middle. A guy who'd made a colossal mistake but wasn't a monster.
Forgiveness has been the single greatest gift I've ever given myself. I still – often! – fall into my self-bashing ways. I must be constantly vigilant against the critic (what's up with your ass? When did it get so big? You look old. Of course, that publication rejected your piece. It sucked. And so on.) Not surprisingly, I've noticed that my self-judgement runs lockstep with my judgement of other people. And that, when I can be gentle with myself, I can be gentle with others.
Whatever your path toward healing from betrayal, I believe it begins with self-forgiveness. Only when we let ourselves off the hook for being who we are are we able to let go of what others have done to us. Their choices become entirely about them. We need only take responsibility for our own.
Whether we allow those who've hurt us room in our lives is another question entirely. Forgiving others doesn't necessarily mean an open door into our world. That's another choice that is ours.
And that choice need be neither the best nor the worst. But in the middle.