The Deepest Act of Forgiveness: Forgiving Yourself

"Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit." — Peter Ustinov

A friend forgives another friend for gossiping about her. A husband forgives a wife for lying to him about her intimate relationship with another man. A mother forgives the man who murdered her daughter. The human capacity to forgive even the deepest wrongs is awe inspiring.

For many people, forgiving others is liberation from anger and grievance that leads to a richer and happier life. But psychologists and others in the helping profession say there is an even deeper peace to be found through what might be the hardest act of all—forgiving ourselves.

The first part of any conflict we must resolve is not between “me and my neighbour”, but between “me and me.” So believes author and therapist Thom Rutledge, who has written extensively on forgiveness and self-forgiveness. In his book The Self-Forgiveness Handbook: A Practical and Empowering Guide, Rutledge writes that the resentment and grudges we hold against ourselves are every bit as destructive as those we harbour towards others. Every time we tune in to the inner dialogue that says we are not (smart, thin, rich, successful, good, etc.) enough, or berate ourselves for what we did or didn’t do, we are choosing to live in blame and resentment—only it’s towards ourselves and not others. As Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, to truly practice forgiveness we must first forgive ourselves for not being perfect.

Philosophers, religious leaders and others have known this for thousands of years; one of the basic tenets of most major religions is to love others as we love ourselves. If we can't forgive and love ourselves, how can we truly forgive and love others? In her book The Unburdened Heart: Five Keys to Forgiveness and Freedom, author Mariah Burton Nelson writes, “When we treat ourselves with love and compassion, we become nicer to everyone else. We become less defensive. We don’t worry so much what others’ judgments might be, because we’re not judging ourselves.” Forgiving ourselves is not a selfish way to let ourselves off the hook for behaving badly. Rather, it is the result of looking deeply within ourselves, accepting our mistakes and failures, taking responsibility for our actions, and loving ourselves in spite of it all. Fred Luskin, psychologist and cofounder of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, writes, “Forgiving is not about condoning bad behaviour; it’s about taking responsibility and becoming a hero and not a victim in the story you tell.”

To be able to say, “I behaved (thoughtlessly, unkindly, foolishly, etc.) and I forgive myself for not being perfect” could be the biggest—and most healing— act of all. For when you can forgive the imperfection in yourself, it’s a lot easier to forgive them in others. “Self-forgiveness is a commitment to love yourself no matter what,” Nelson says. “It’s the generous act of giving your self a break: Remembering that you’re human. Offering yourself the loving kindness that you might offer, on your best days, to those you love the most, no matter what they’ve done.”