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Learning to Forgive Yourself

We all mess up sometimes. So why is learning to forgive yourself a lot harder than forgiving others?
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WebMD Feature

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.

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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 ourselves up."

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 yourself.

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