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Embracing Self-Forgiveness After Having an Extramarital Affair

Question

Suzie, I had an extramarital affair with a woman at work. How do I forgive myself for having betrayed my wife? She is such a wonderful person. Every time I see the hurt in her eyes, I feel like a total lowlife. I have caused her so much pain and hurt. She didn’t deserve this. Now, I’m having a really hard time forgiving myself for what I did. Please help! –Deep Regret

As I was thinking about how best to answer your question, I was reminded of a story about a World War II submarine. Let me share it with you. Picture the scene:  The time is December 1942, right in the middle of the Second World War. There’s an Allied submarine out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, operating at Level 3, Full Silent Alert. Why? A Nazi sub-destroyer is circling directly above them, hunting for prey.

The atmosphere in the sub is harrowing.

Sailors are motionless. Engines off. The men aren’t allowed even a whisper (hand signals only), for fear of being detected, which of course would mean certain death.  As everyone is focusing on being quiet (and doing their best to keep from panicking), suddenly, out of the blue, a sailor drops a large steel wrench on the metal decking. The boat rings like a church bell on Sunday morning, immediately giving away the sub’s location. The Nazis respond by raining down MK3 anti-sub depth charges like hail in a thunderstorm.

Being well targeted, the bombs find their mark and the submarine is severely damaged.

A mechanic reports to the captain, “Skipper, our engines are toast, the electricity is out, and the hull has been breached. We’re taking on water like crazy!” As the boat sinks deeper and deeper (several hundred feet beyond its demonstrated hull safe depth), most of the men begin to wonder to themselves, “Is this the end?”

Now, if you were the captain on this sub, there are several things you couldn’t afford to do right now. You wouldn’t start a court-martial proceeding for the man who dropped the wrench. This just isn’t the time or the place for that. You wouldn’t undertake an investigation into how a well-trained sailor could have acted so irresponsibly during such a critical moment, risking the lives of everyone on board the sub.

But what if YOU had been the man who dropped that wrench? At this point, would it do any good for you to let yourself become so wracked by guilt that you couldn’t continue to perform your duties? I don’t think so.

In fact, the more guilt this sailor indulges, the more he endangers himself and those around him.

As it turned out, this sailor understood these facts and so did his crew and captain. Rather than waste time on blame, shame, or reproach, they pulled together and worked as a team.

The good news is they survived, and a few days later, the damaged vessel limped its way back into harbor. Soon after, the sailor was court-martialed and his fellow officers and commander were asked to testify, either for or against him.

What’s interesting is that all 90 of his peers chose to testify on his behalf. They told of how the mistake easily could have been theirs, and when they were asked if they would feel comfortable serving with the sailor again, all answered yes. When they were asked why, they told the court of the sailor’s quickness to overcome and continue to perform despite having made a mistake. In their eyes, his willingness to step up — even when he’d fallen down — made him a hero.

What does this all mean for you?

Stop for a moment and think about it this way:

What if the sailor had beaten himself up with guilt, wallowed in self-pity, and failed to forgive himself quickly for his mistake? How much more danger might he have caused his crew? How much less effective would he have been in the crisis?

If he had reacted like that, how do you think his peers would have felt about him as they later looked back at the situation? Do you think they would have been so quick to support him and vouch for him throughout the trial? (Especially if he had NOT been able to pull himself together emotionally, recover from his mistakes, and help them save the boat?)

I don’t imagine they would. Part of what I understand about the unwillingness of human beings to forgive themselves (and others) for mistakes is this:

It doesn’t help anybody. I believe carrying guilt and unforgiveness always does more harm to you and those you’ve hurt, than simply letting go.

Here’s the deal.

No matter what happened, you can always find a reason to blame yourself, blame others, blame your marriage, or blame life itself. When you think about it, you can punish yourself with guilt for the rest of your life. No one can stop you. You can drag the baggage of past mistakes all the way with you to the grave.

If you wish…

…you can nail yourself to the cross of your mistakes each and every day. No one can stop you. It’s your choice. The only question is… why would you choose to?

Look at it this way:

Like the sailor who dropped the wrench, you have the power to forgive yourself. You can know that you are human, and decide to overlook your mistakes and let yourself off the hook. BOTH choices are yours to make.

What is the key to making the choice to forgive yourself?

It can be summed up in one word: permission. Often, that’s what makes self-forgiveness such a challenge. Too many of us are waiting for a sign or for someone else to come along and give us permission to let go of our past.

Newsflash:  THERE IS NO ONE HANDING OUT PERMISSION SLIPS!

Like breathing, sneezing, and walking… forgiving yourself is something YOU have to do FOR YOURSELF.

That’s a good question. If you find that you’re having a hard time giving yourself permission to forgive yourself, then chances are, you’re experiencing some confusion. The first confusion comes from not fully understanding the nature of mistakes. The second confusion comes from not fully understanding the nature of forgiveness.

Let’s start by clearing up some of that confusion right now…