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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?

Hanging on to Resentment Can Have Advantages

"It's about relinquishing a source of pain and letting go of resentment. People think forgiving yourself means you are letting yourself get away with whatever it was you did," Hartman goes on. "The pain and anger you are feeling are supposed to be your punishment."

People want to feel pain and resentment? "Oh," exclaims Hartman, "resentment is a very attractive way of putting a barrier around yourself as protection against being hurt again."

Do You Need a Therapist?

If toting around self-loathing like a heavy backpack has advantages, how do you set it down?

It can be done without formal therapy, Marshall says. "But not without community of some kind. It is in the context of our relationships (whether with therapists, pastors, counselors, churches, families, and friends) that we experience the grace of being forgiven and forgiving others." Grace, of course, is a peace of mind bestowed regardless of whether we deserve it or not.

"You need to talk to someone as a rule," Hartman says.

How Do You Know You Have Forgiven Yourself?

You picked the wrong mate and the kids suffered neglect. You spread a story that got someone fired. You didn't report a crime and others were victimized. Is talking to a therapist and declaring yourself forgiven enough? "You know you have done it when the memory gives you no more pain or anger," Hartman says. "It's as simple as that. You can say, 'I am free of this.'"

Of course, along with this often goes the need to ask the wronged person to forgive you as well. "Forgiveness," Marshall notes, "is never complete unless people and relationships are transformed in the process." That transformation, of course, could involve never repeating the action.

Writing on this subject in Selfhelp Magazine, Richard B. Patterson, PhD, a clinical psychologist in El Paso, Texas, says, "Making amends is more than a simple 'I'm sorry.' It involves a willingness to listen to another person's hurt. It involves a willingness to take immediate corrective action." He says, however, that if disclosure would harm the other person ("I am sorry I slept with your husband. Oh, you didn't know?") you need to find another way to make amends indirectly, even by praying for the person.

Hartman likens the sequence, if done properly, to a technique her husband used to correct a problem with his computer. He didn't want to lose data, so someone told him to set the clock back to before the problem occurred. This way, he lost the mistake, but not the data in the memory.

That's what forgiving yourself is -- you don't forget the mistake, but it doesn't cause any trouble and you don't lose the memory of it.

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