Forgiving Yourself and Others

BY ARLENE F. HARDER, MA, MFT

You can learn how to forgive both yourself and others with a technique that recognizes we all do the best we can and that we can't control the behavior of others.

There is a great deal of confusion about what it means to forgive and about how to do it. Hopefully these ideas, which over the years I have discovered work best for my clients and for myself, will also be valuable for you.

To forgive another person does not mean you will forget what happened or that the person is not responsible for what he did or that you need to bring him back into your life. To forgive another doesn't even need to mean the other person knows you've forgiven him or her. To forgive another simply means you no longer allow another person's actions or words to cause you resentment, anger and pain. To forgive means you acknowledge that while you would have preferred the other person act or speak differently, you accept that person just as he is.

To not forgive another means you continue to hold onto your resentment, anger and pain over another's actions by essentially demanding the other person be someone other than who that person knew (or knows) how to be.

To forgive yourself does not mean that you should forget what you did or said that might have injured another or caused yourself distress. To forgive yourself doesn't mean you aren't responsible for what you did or said. To forgive yourself simply means you realize that you might have done something differently if you had known how. Forgiving yourself means you recognize that you didn't know how to do something differently and realize you have learned by your mistake. As someone once said, experience is what we get right after we need it. To forgive yourself means you are finally willing to accept yourself just as you were at the time you made the mistake you've been holding over your head.

To not forgive yourself means you continue to hold onto guilt and pain and demand the impossible — that you be someone other than yourself, other than who you were when you hadn't yet learned the lesson you gained from your mistake.

If you would like to practice a forgiveness exercise (and it can take a bit of practice), consider whether the following might work for you in considering what someone has done to you.

Imagine the person who has offended you in some way is standing in front of you as he was when he said or did something hurtful and say something like this:

"When you said or did _______ , I was hurt and angry. I would have preferred you _____ . But you did not. When I think about what you said or did, I have let myself feel anger, resentment, pain, bitterness. I have held onto my demand that you should have said or done something different. I no longer choose to hold onto the tension and hurt that accompanies my memory of what you said or did."

"Therefore, I cancel the demands, expectations and conditions I placed on you that you should have ____. You are totally responsible for your own actions and deeds."

"I now send my love or (if that word is too strong) acceptance to you as a human being, just as you were and are now."

Then imagine that your love or acceptance is going out to the other person. Take your time to experience how your body feels when you release the conditions you placed on this person to be someone he did not know how to be or, for whatever reason, was unable to be.

This kind of forgiveness exercise recognizes the amount of power you have over other people's actions — that's right, YOU DON'T HAVE ANY. While you can have strong preferences that someone behave in a certain way, you cannot control another person no matter how much you might demand they act as you would want them to — and no matter how reasonable those expectations may seem to you and to anyone who agrees with your position. They are responsible for their actions and you are only responsible for yours. Holding tightly to the expectation that others behave as you would have them behave is contrary to the way things work and thus unnecessarily stressful.

When you are through with the exercise, allow relief to seep into every pore of your body as you release your demand that others be someone they are not.

To use this same kind of forgiveness exercise for yourself can also be very healing.

You can begin to forgive yourself by realizing that when you made the mistake(s) for which you now criticize yourself you did not wake up in the morning and deliberately set out to mess up your life or to harm someone else. If you had known how to make better choices, you would have. At the time you did the best you could. Therefore, you can forgive yourself by using words similar to those above and applying them to yourself. Imagine you are saying them to the person you were in the past, even if the past was a short time ago.

As you say those words, allow yourself to be both the giver and receiver of forgiveness, letting that love flow through every part of your body. Feel the release of tension that comes from forgiveness.

© Copyright 1997, Revised 2012, Arlene F Harder, MA, MFT