Today we recognize that being able to forgive others implies the liberating experience of understanding and forgiving ourselves. Often our mistakes, or criticism we have received from loved ones, can lead to a loss of self-esteem. We become distant from others, avoiding affection and fearful in our interpersonal relationships. Blaming others becomes falsely reassuring…We need to learn to pray over our past history, to accept ourselves, to learn how to live with our limitations, and even to forgive ourselves, in order to have this same attitude towards others. (Pope Francis)
Quite a number of years ago, my wife and I were friendly with a woman who worked in business with her husband and was (at the time) a mother of two small children. She was smart, was a “mover and a shaker” and had a quick and sarcastic wit. Both she and her husband were very devoted to their Catholic faith and were involved in various parish activities. For all appearances, they were the model thriving family.
The rest of what I share is with permission.
One day the husband asked me if I would meet him for lunch, and after three hours of conversation I understood why. Their marriage was in crisis, and from his perspective it was largely because she was strangling him, and their children, with her relentless and unattainable expectations. He said, “She criticizes everything I do and it’s driving me insane. And it’s making the kids resent her. But I know it’s not her fault. She’s just passing on what she received.”
He went on to tell me she had grown up in a hyper-critical home, with a father who was demanding, never affectionate, and never made her feel she measured up to his expectations. Her mother was passive and never stood up to him to protect her little girl. Then, with copious tears running down his cheeks, he said, “Look, she hates herself and I can’t help her anymore. I have tried to help her love herself, but I’ve reached my limits. I’m done.”
They ended up going to counseling, and made enormous progress. After about six months had passed since the lunch, the woman emailed me a very lengthy note expressing her own feelings of anger and hatred toward God. She said, “I can’t get over the sense that God is far away really and never quite happy with me because I never measure up to his demands. To think of God as a father and me as his daughter is totally suffocating…counseling has made me want to stop living a facade of perfection in my life. But now I’m scared because part of that includes my faith in God which has been a total facade.”
As I do so often with people who ask me to help them grow in their relationship with God, I encouraged her make space for silent prayer in her life. I recommended she try to go to Eucharistic Adoration once a week for an hour, sit quietly in front of Jesus, and very simply share all the contents of her heart. Among other things, I said,
When you sit in prayer with Jesus, keep still and just look at him. Allow whatever is deep inside of you to surface. Don’t run away from whatever agitation rises up in the quiet. Let it burn through you and then speak to him about it. Give permission to Jesus to enter into your heart freely and surprise you. Say over and over, “Show me the Father.” That is Jesus’ entire mission, so see what he has to say…
A few weeks later, I received a handwritten thank you note from the woman. In it, she said,
I just had to share this with you. After a few tries in the Chapel taking your advice (which was hard as hell by the way), one night I experienced for the first time in my entire life the feeling of being washed with unconditional love from God the Father. You know what a big deal that is. I was a total wreck and it’s all your fault! But here’s the million dollar insight I got—I can only love myself when I know I’m loved like that by somebody who knows me through and through and not just the fake me that was most of my life…
I’m sure you know from your wife that a woman just wants to be noticed…That’s totally what I knew that night. God noticed everything inside of me. All the crap especially. But here’s the new part: that’s what he loved. The crap! Not just the “perfect” parts of me which were the only parts I ever felt were lovable. Excuse my French, but that’s just [blank]ing wild…