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Health & Balance

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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?

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.

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.'"

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