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Forgiving Yourself and Others

by: Arlene F. Harder, MA, MFT

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.
I was thinking about forgiveness. I was thinking if someone has been/is abusive to you then instead of calling it forgiveness you could call it a "letting go." To me it would be about not being affected by these people anymore. Letting go of anger and bitterness. But not letting yourself be hurt by them again.

It's hard to do. I think it's a process. It's especially hard when love is mixed in.

I wonder and worry a lot if it is ok to stay away from people who have hurt you.


Janet it is definitely letting go and getting away from the person that is abusing you. The first part is letting go and then you move on much later in the process to forgiveness. It is the best thing for you or anybody to stay away, far, far away from a person that is hurting you because they are not going to stop and the cycle will only repeat itself day after day.

It is a process and it is hard when love is in the mix but it is something that has to be done for the safety of yourself and the people around you (children, other family members etc.).

Just my opinion and easier said than done I know.
i think forgiveness is exactly that, letting go of the hurt and pain that comes when you think of a certain person and their actions, or something that happened that has hurt you.

i also think that not only is it ok to stay away from people that hurt you, i think it's something you need to do, for your own well-being. you need to protect yourself. loving that person makes it extra hard to stay away from them. but it is also why it hurts so much when they hurt you.

forgiving yourself is something i have been thinking a lot about too. i think forgiving yourself may in fact be accepting yourself for who you are, and no longer beating yourself up over things you feel you have done wrong. i guess there is letting go involved there as well. to forgive yourself is to accept yourself as you are. when you accept yourself then you finally love yourself.

when you are able to let go, you gain inner peace. letting go is very hard, but it is worth it.


I, too, think it's very important to remove the person who is hurting you from your life and to keep them removed. There's no sense in subjecting yourself to unnecessary pain, and it definitely slows the process of recovery from hurt, anger, and feelings of helplessness. You don't have to condemn the person, but you do need to realize that this is not a person YOU need in YOUR life. This same person might be suited to someone else. They're just not suited to YOU. In cases like this, I believe, first comes the acceptance that this is a person with whom you are not compatible. Later, comes forgiveness ... or at least acceptance.

In forgiving oneself, I found that the only way I could do it successfully was to instill in myself the knowledge that the person who erred five years (or ten years, or ten days) ago is not the "me" that exists today. I've learned. I've grown. I've "evolved". I am no longer that person; therefore, it's much easier to forgive that person for what she did and to accept that the "I" of today would not do that thing again. :)


Forgiveness does wonders to the way we feel and perceive life after letting go of the event. Think about the beauty of like and dont let yesterday take todays place. Focus on the now and the past, although it can be cruel, is that, the past.



I think the word "forgive" or "forgiveness" are the wrong words to use, depending on what you are trying to forgive. If it is a minor thing in your life, this is not too difficult for the majority, but for something very major, this is a word that is often talked about in support groups I'm with, and there the reaction is that most can't forgive.

One of the reasons I am studying Psychology is that I am a victim of a crime; if abuse starts at an early age and the abuser is someone that is known, then it is very difficult for the victim / survivor to work out their emotions and therefore they are very confused, because they often have to mix with these people and family are often involved. In my case it was a sudden violent crime and so forgiveness could not come into it; the word anger is much more the way I feel. The only solution is to get the perpetrator in jail and then start to move on.

To forgive another simply means you no longer allow another person's actions or words to cause you resentment, anger and pain.
For me, this is a key point in the article. It's a letting go I guess. I have actually recently been able to do this about one incident in my life and it is such a freeing feeling. This person no longer has any power over me and I am not angry anymore. I have just let go of it. I don't know how I did it, but I did.

And I agree that the word forgive doesn't seem quite right. It kind of implies a "happily ever after" scenario where you get along with the person and everything is fine, but it really isn't like that at all most of the time.


I think one can forgive. The difficult, to me, comes in forgetting. It's very difficult (if not impossible) to forget the really crushing blows we encounter. They stick with us and we're not capable of "wiping the slate clean". Our minds are what they are, and we WILL remember.

By putting these events in the past, where they belong, and realizing that the person (or persons) who did these things are no longer a part of our lives, and may have changed for the better, we can look past them into the present and future. Whatever has happened to us, no matter how harsh, has had it's part in building our strength, our courage, and our ability to work through difficulties and come out the other side with new resolve. So, there are good things that result from the "bad things". We just have to recognize them, be thankful for them, and move on. Forgiveness comes almost without thinking once this can be accomplished. :hug:


Thank you Janet for this post. It is a really interesting post. I would love to find the right word; I think for me, fear also is a word that I associate with this; once I can stop the feeling of fear, I feel I can move on. I came very close to losing my life. He also threatened to come back and kill me if I went to the Police, which I did. I've now moved well away, have good security , and I am constantly looked after.

I'm now getting on with my own life but until he is behind bars I feel I can't rest because of my own fear and the fear of it happening to somebody else also; I carry that responsibility.

I think you have every right to be angry and in your case forgiveness isn't something you need to worry about. You just need to take care of yourself and I think you are so brave for going to the police. That is SO brave. And in doing so you will be helping others, but it isn't your responsibility what this awful person might do to someone else. You've done all the right things.

I have been assaulted and thought I was going to die and I don't think I could really forgive that person either. I think I have come to a point where I have stopped blaming myself and accepted that it was his choice to do what he did and I had nothing to do with it.

All I could think of as a word is healing for you. Some people don't deserve our forgiveness I think. It's the getting to the point where he doesn't affect you with this fear and anger, although anger can be energizing and help in some ways to get through things. But not when it becomes self-destructive.

I hope I'm making sense. I wish the best for you as you go through the healing process and take the steps needed to take care of yourself. That's the most important thing. YOU and taking care of you.

Take care.


I really enjoyed this article, Janet. It's hard to remember that we don't have any power over the actions of others that have caused pain.


This reminds me of something I read awhile ago, I can't remember where, but it said that "forgiveness is a gift that you give yourself".

It also reminds me of a clip I saw on Oprah of a film called "The Secret" (has anyone seen it?), where the guy talked about holding a grudge, and framed it as "drinking poison and expecting the other person to die". I'm not sure if that exactly fits in with this thread, but it reminded me of it. BTW I've heard that it's an excellent, empowering video to watch.
This reminds me of something I read awhile ago, I can't remember where, but it said that "forgiveness is a gift that you give yourself".

I think this is true. Forgiveness is like a letting go of bad feelings, bad stuff, harmful emotions, that is a gift because it allows you to be free of what I call "toxic junk." Being free of that is so amazing.

I think it's also important to forgive yourself, but for me that seems the hardest thing to do.


i think forgiveness is exactly that, letting go of the hurt and pain that comes when you think of a certain person and their actions, or something that happened that has hurt you.
I am agree.
Somehow some communities demand forgiveness as able to get along with the person.

I think usually, able to say something like 'the person is just an ordinary person' or 'it just I don't fit with him/her' depends on how much wisdom you get or develop as the effect of the event. Or because time and events at last erase the memory/pain bits by bits.
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