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 a 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 cheat on
your spouse? 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 old riot
act. All the world's major religions preach the power of forgiveness. But
forgiveness is such an elusive act, quicksilver in its ability to be strongly
felt one moment and then dart away beyond reach the next.
According to Stanford's call for volunteer subjects, the
definition of forgiveness is a simple one, not a near-impossible requirement
that a person apply for sainthood. "Forgiveness," it says, "consists primarily
of taking less personal offense, reducing anger, and the blaming of the
offender, and developing an increased understanding of situations that lead to
hurt and anger."
When You Need to Try to Forgive Yourself
Sharon A. Hartman, LSW, a clinical trainer at the Caron
Foundation, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Wernersville, Pa., deals
with the need to forgive every day. "These are such shame-based diseases," she
says. "Forgiving oneself is of the more difficult parts of recovery."
A chronic state of anger and resentment interferes with life,
Hartman points out. Countless studies also show stress and anger can cause or
worsen diseases, such as cancer, heart
disease, and various autoimmune disorders. "When resentment is interfering
with your life, it's time to forgive yourself," she says. "So many people have
a constant, critical voice in their heads narrating their every move." She says
she calls her critical voice "Gertrude" and tries to counteract Gertrude's
eternal litany with positive affirmations -- that she is getting better, that
she is less angry. "Forgiving doesn't mean not being angry with yourself, but
not hating yourself.
"No one," Hartman adds, "can beat us up better than we beat
Forgiving Requires Specificity
"I think people often try to forgive themselves for the wrong
things," says Joretta L. Marshall, PhD, a United Methodist minister and
professor of pastoral care at the Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis. "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 -- gay or
lesbian, or having some kind of handicap. Forgiveness means being specific
about what we did that needs forgiving."
"I think forgiveness is often confused with condoning or lack
of accountability," Hartman says. "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