3 Steps To Forgive Yourself and Others

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.–Lewis B. Smedes, Christian ethicist and author of Forgive and Forget.

Unfortunately, we all experience the pain of betrayal at some point in our lives: a co-worker undermines us to get the promotion; our boss takes credit for our efforts; a spouse has an affair or abandons us; a parent treats one sibling better than the others; a child is lost in a senseless accident–the list of hurtful experiences is endless. Does this mean we must resign ourselves to being wounded, to being victims? Although some people do fall into that trap, there is another option–forgiveness.

There are so many reasons to choose forgiveness over resentment and bitterness. On a fundamental level, our lives depend on it. Mayo Clinic, among other leaders in modern medicine, tells us that choosing forgiveness has positive implications for our physical and mental health, including:

  • Healthier relationships
  • Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
  • Less stress and hostility
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Fewer symptoms of depression, anxiety and chronic pain
  • Lower risk of alcohol and substance abuse

So why would anyone refuse to forgive? Some fear that forgiving equals condoning–If I forgive my spouse, then he will think I am ok with his affair; If I forgive the employee who embezzled from me, it means he ‘gets away’ with stealing. Others equate forgiveness with disloyalty–If I forgive the drunk driver, I betray my son’s memory. The problem with this type of thinking is that it puts the focus on the pain and keeps us stuck. Getting ‘unstuck’ is another reason we should choose to forgive.

We have all met people who wear the injustices they have experienced like a badge of honor. Truth be told, we really don’t like spending time with those people. Who wants to spend the entire evening stuck next to the one person in the room who wants to rehash the worst parts of her life? Not me. And, hopefully, not you–unless you are the type who likes to play “Who had it worse” with your dinner companions. Being a martyr is just not attractive.

Being ‘stuck’ in resentment isn’t just about being the victim. For some, it’s about getting even. We want to stick it to the person who stuck it to us. We lose huge chunks of time to revenge fantasies, thinking about that ever elusive day when our betrayer will get his or her comeuppance. The only thing worse than listening to someone whine about how they were wounded is to hear them snarl through clenched teeth about the boss who screwed them over or the tramp of a wife who did them wrong. I belong to a web forum for people who have been through divorce and reading some of the things betrayed spouses say about their exes would be shocking, if it weren’t so common. In fact there are numerous threads on the site devoted to ‘letting go’ and ‘getting unstuck’, which tells me this problem is more prevalent than I ever realized.

Smedes maintains, “Vengeance is having a videotape planted in your soul that cannot be turned off. It plays the painful scene over and over again inside your mind... And each time it plays you feel the clap of pain again... Forgiving turns off the videotape of pained memory. Forgiving sets you free.” This is so true. It is very easy to get tunnel vision when we have been wronged–all we can see is our own pain and how it has forever changed our lives. Now, while we are wrapped up in our misery, what is the perpetrator of these emotional crimes doing? Living life! When we refuse to forgive, we are holding ourselves back from living a fulfilling life; ultimately we risk hurting ourselves more than the person who betrayed us ever did.

There is one more step to truly letting go of the past and moving forward free of the burden of unforgiveness. That step is to forgive ourselves for our own wrongdoings. Many of us do a fabulous job of forgiving others, but are ridiculously hard on ourselves. We forgive someone for a huge mistake, but torture ourselves when we fall short. In order to let ourselves off the emotional hook, we need to answer a few key questions.

1. Did I mean to do it? Whether it was as minor as forgetting an appointment, or as major as seriously injuring someone else, accidents sometimes happen. If this was truly an accident, understand that you could not have changed the outcome. If what you did was deliberate, then acknowledge that and commit to not making the same choice in the future.

2. Did I own it? At the time when you hurt someone else, did you take responsibility or try to avoid accountability? When possible, apologize to the person/people you wronged. Sometimes that is an actual conversation; sometimes it takes the form of a letter you write but never send.

3. Am I genuinely sorry? Often, we feel pushed into situations where we act in ways we never thought we could. Sometimes we lash out in pain after someone has betrayed us in an effort to pay them back. At the end of the day, though, the actions of another person are not our burden to bear, but we are responsible for our response. No matter the situation that led to our actions, we must choose to feel compassion for those around us; we are all fallible at one time or another. Admitting we are wrong, when we are indeed wrong, is crucial to changing patterns and moving forward without guilt or resentment dragging us down.

Forgiving ourselves completes the healing process that begins with forgiving others. After we have made the choice to forgive others and forgive ourselves, we must put the past behind us, where it belongs. Clearly, forgiveness is good for our physical and emotional health. Forgiving makes it easier for us to let go of pain and to choose to enjoy life as it is instead of how we wish it could be.     It brings us freedom we will never have as long as we allow someone else’s actions to dominate our lives. And if you feel you simply must get some form of payback, remember the words of Oscar Wilde: “Always forgive your enemies–nothing annoys them so much”.