This week’s article is from the Connections Newsletter, a newsletter about family relationships and personal growth.
We all mess up sometimes. So why is forgiving yourself a lot harder than forgiving others? Your heart and mental health may depend on your ability to reduce hurt and anger, even at yourself.
So effective is forgiveness — if we could find way to learn and teach it — that Stanford University is undertaking a project to learn how forgiveness can enhance health and relationships and even prevent disease.
But first, you might have to forgive yourself. Did you hit a child in anger? Steal something? Go off the wagon? The list of potential human misdeeds is long.
If someone else did these things, you might learn to forgive them or at least let go of the anger. That’s because it’s easier to forgive others. After all, they don’t live in your head, reading you the same riot act. All the world’s major religions preach the power of forgiveness. But forgiveness is such an elusive act.
When you need to forgive yourself. A chronic state of anger and resentment interferes with life. Countless studies also show stress and anger can cause or worsen diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and various autoimmune disorders. Forgiving doesn’t mean not being angry with yourself, but not hating yourself. No one can beat us up better than we beat ourselves up.
Forgiving requires specificity. “I think people often try to forgive themselves for the wrong things,” says Joretta L. Marshall, PhD. “We think we ought to forgive ourselves for being human and making human mistakes.
People don’t have to forgive themselves for being who they are....Forgiveness means being specific about what we did that needs forgiving.”
Learning to forgive yourself. Forgiveness is often confused with condoning or lack of accountability. This is a world with high performance standards. People think they need to be perfect. Yet people do things intended or not that hurt others. You may not intend to harm, but the other person is no less hurt. That’s when you need to stop at some point and forgive yourself.
Hanging on to resentment can have advantages. People think forgiving yourself means you are letting yourself get away with whatever it was you did. The pain and anger you are feeling are supposed to be your punishment.
People want to feel pain and resentment. Resentment is a very attractive way of putting a barrier around yourself as a protection against being hurt again.
Do you need a therapist? If toting around self-loathing like a heavy backpack has advantages, how do you set it down?
It can be done without formal therapy. “But not without community of some kind. It is in the context of our relationships that we experience the grace of being forgiven and forgiving others,” says Sharon A. Hartman, LSW a clinical trainer at the Caroan Foundation. “Grace, of course, is a peace of mind bestowed regardless of whether we deserve it or not. You need to talk to someone as a rule.”
How do you know you have forgiven yourself? You know you have done it when the memory gives you no more pain or anger. It’s as simple as that. You can say, “I’m free of this.”
Of course, along with this often goes the need to ask the wronged person to forgive you as well. Forgiveness is never complete unless people and relationships are transformed in the process. That transformation, of course, could involve never repeating the action.
Writing on this subject in Selfhelp Magazine, Richard B. Patterson, PhD, a clinical psychologist in El Paso, Texas, says, “Making amends is more than a simple I’m sorry’. It involves a willingness to listen to another person’s hurt. It involves a willingness to take immediate corrective action.” He says, however, that if disclosure would harm the other person you need to find another way to make amends indirectly, even by praying for the person.
That’s what forgiving yourself is you don’t forget the mistake, but it doesn’t cause any trouble and you don’t lose the memory of it.
A new day. Forgiving yourself isn’t a slogging, long-term “good day/bad day” type of thing. At some point you reach a turning point. Something shifts. You feel less burdened, you have more energy. You live longer, you have better health.
We all screw up sometimes. Forgiving ourselves is as close as we come to a system reset button.