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Forgive Yourself, and Let Go

Why Learning to Forgive Yourself is Key to Mental Health

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Forgiveness was the topic at a seminar where I was a keynote speaker. We weren’t discussing minor hurts that, though annoying and frustrating, ultimately can be forgiven. The discussion was centered on how, or even if, we should forgive those who have caused us tremendous pain.

There is always a great fuss made about the act of forgiveness. Everyone from celebrities to clergy of all faiths tout forgiveness as a healing action. All say that forgiving someone who has hurt you helps you to move on. Forgiveness, they say, is a necessity for healing and happiness.

The premise implied by religion that if we ourselves ever want to seek forgiveness from a higher power for our own indiscretions, then we should be able to forgive others, doesn’t always hold water. Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” So it is suggested that if we can forgive someone we are somehow much more than human; we border on divinity.

Sounds good but there is a dichotomy of ideas here. We are not divine; we are human and human pain is real. Some say that there are some hurts that cannot be healed with an act of forgiveness and they are right. Certainly cases of extreme cruelty or violent crimes such as rape or child abuse prove this statement true.

“I see forgiving someone who has done irreparable harm as condoning his or her action. To forgive that harm is like saying what was done is acceptable and it isn’t,” said a woman, a professor of ethics, in the audience.

“There are some acts that should not be forgiven,” agreed another who is a lawyer. “You’re not a terrible person if you cannot feel forgiveness towards someone who has taken a part of your life away from you by a criminal offense.”

I could see the point. If what was done to you was traumatic, forgiving that person can be impossible. You shouldn’t deny or justify another person’s responsibility for hurting you.

And yet, it is possible that we are looking at this idea of forgiveness in the wrong way. Maybe we shouldn’t seek to forgive what was done to us or forgive the person who did it. Perhaps the real issue is that we should seek to forgive ourselves for allowing that personal pain to interfere with our need to move on with the flow of life. Forgiving yourself brings a kind of inner peace that permits you to live fully.

The first step to forgiving yourself is to face what has happened. As hard as it is to do, you need to address what was done to you, mourn the pain, and then release it to the past; holding on to the pain may make you become the one who pays most dearly.

If you continually dwell on past traumas, thoughts of vengeance and hostility will take root and grow in you. Allowing negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, may find you being swallowed up by your own bitterness and sense of lack of justice. You become a victim twice over; depressed, anxious and unable to enjoy the present and stuck in the past. The act of forgiving yourself can help you focus on the more positive parts of your life.

There is a growing trend in today’s new morality code that makes us feel guilty for things we don’t do. Scholars, psychologists, sociologists as well as those in law, and politics define forgiveness as a human attribute. You are a better person if you can pardon a wrong done to you. It seems that if you aren’t able to forgive another, no matter how badly you have been hurt, there is something wrong with you. That is not the case. Forgiveness is manifold and complicated. There is nothing wrong with you if you choose not to forgive a cruel act.

Even though our modern society says we should forgive, this was not always so in the past. Aristotle’s take on being a forgiving person was that you were “unlikely to defend yourself” and that you would “endure being insulted.” Quite a difference of ideas and certainly food for thought.

But the act of forgiving yourself allows you to begin a life without chains which tie you to the past. Interestingly enough, the Aramaic word for forgive, “shbag”, literally means to “untie.” To be happy in the present and the future, you need to untie yourself from your past hurt.

Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. Healthy change is a necessity to a happy life and a happy life is your right. Forgive yourself and live.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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