Breaking the Silence

Website for the American Mental Health Counselors Association's Breaking the Silence initiative to address mental health stigma.

Learning to Forgive Ourselves and Others

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from contributing author Dr. Betty Hughes

The purpose of this article is to briefly highlight the importance of forgiveness as part of the counseling process. For many people, learning to forgive may need to come after intensive psychotherapy regarding memories. Forgiveness work may then help to release any remaining negative energy so that the client can learn to function at a healthier level. Holding grievances takes more energy than we realize until we let it go.

The concept of forgiveness is complex. Basically, it refers to some degree of releasing negative feelings about an occurrence that has caused emotional pain. It does not necessarily mean forgetting the occurrence.

Forgiveness can be defined in different ways. Following is a definition given by Judith Orloff, M.D.

“Forgiveness is the act of compassionately releasing the desire to punish someone or yourself for an offense. It’s a state of grace, nothing you can force or pretend. There are no shortcuts.”


How does one forgive?

Forgiveness is a powerful concept. Whether we consider forgiving ourselves or others, the actual doing of it must be geared to each individual. For example, some people may feel the need to understand the reasons an action has occurred before they are able to forgive. And sometimes that explanation does not equal the amount of pain it has caused.

Many people believe that forgetting is part of forgiving. Yet how can a person tell their brain to forget something that has happened? And if they do forget the memory, have they actually released the feelings or simply buried them away until something triggers the memory in the future?

Another thought may be helpful for some people: Nothing can actually change the past. However, we can learn to see the past differently. We can learn to focus on the positive aspects of an event and decide to learn from experiences so that the future can be viewed differently. Instead of using the imagination to recreate the offense, we can imagine a better future.

What is the difference between forgiving oneself and forgiving others? Again the complexity is huge because people have such varying beliefs. For example, some people expect more of themselves than they would ever expect from other people; therefore, forgiving themselves can be extra hard, especially for someone who tends to ruminate about what they have done.

In an article by Jenna Amatulli, , the following suggestions on self-forgiveness are recommended and elaborated:

  1. Understand that your mistakes do not define you.
  2. ….And neither do your failures.
  3. Let people in.
  4. Don’t dwell.
  5. Don’t be afraid to start over.

Amatulli ends her article with the following statement: “Let’s try and forgive ourselves, not because we should, but because we can.”

In conclusion, forgiveness is a complex issue. Whether we choose to work on forgiving ourselves or someone else, we need to realize that holding onto grievances takes a major toll on our bodies, our minds, our emotions, and our spirit. Therapeutic processes such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) (, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT)(, and other energy work can be very helpful in regaining our inner peace. With all the complexity, it may be easier to simply make a decision to forgive ourselves and others so that we can feel better. When we feel better, we have more energy to build a better future for ourselves and others.

For more information, the following resource can be very helpful. A link to other resources is included.

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