One of the finest qualities of being human

"When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future."
— Bernard Meltzer

"We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."

— Martin Luther King, Jr.


None of us wakes up in the morning with the intention to mess up our lives, or the lives of others. We simply assume we will do the best we can with whatever our day requires of us.

Yet somehow, we manage, far more than we want to admit, that we are flawed and sometimes make mistakes that injure ourselves and others. If we don’t find a way to let go of our very human errors, we can find ourselves with guilt and regrets that prevent us from doing a better job of managing life to the greatest extent possible.

At the same time, others are doing the best they can (for the most part), yet we can carry anger and great resentment that injures us far more than it does the other person.

However, before I give you a simple exercise on forgiveness of yourself and another on forgiving another person, let’s look at some misconceptions about what forgiveness does and does not mean.

What Forgiveness Means

To forgive means you recognize that you (or others) did the best you could do at the time you did whatever it was you (or others) did that you wish you hadn’t done, or when you failed to do something you now wish you had done.

To forgive yourself means you have learned from your mistake. As someone once said: experience is what we get right after we needed it.

To forgive means you are finally willing to accept yourself (and others) just as you were at the time you (or they) made the mistake you’ve been holding over your head (or theirs).

To forgive yourself means you release all the guilt and pain you’ve experienced because you demanded the impossible of yourself—that is, that you should have been able to know something you only know now because you’ve learned your lesson from making a mistake.

Similarly, to forgive others recognizes that the other person didn’t know how to be someone he didn’t yet (and possibly still doesn’t) know how to be.

Most of all, to forgive greatly lightens the load in our invisible backpacks that has been focused on our mistakes and errors of us and the mistakes and errors of others.

What Forgiveness DOES NOT MEAN

To forgive does not mean you should forget what you (or others) did to injure another or to cause yourself distress.

To forgive others does not mean you have to bring them back into your life.

To forgive does not mean you (or others) aren’t responsible for your actions.

Forgiving Yourself

The following is a simple exercise on forgiveness of yourself. As you read this, let yourself experience it as thoroughly as you can and come back and repeat it as often as you need to lighten the burden you have placed on yourself for doing or saying something, or not doing or saying something, in the past.

Exercise to Forgive Yourself

From a centered, open place within, remember something you did, or failed to do, that causes you to feel badly when you are reminded of it. . . . As you remember the mistake you criticize yourself for, experience the guilt and pain you have carried in your heart because you made decisions back then that you later wished you hadn’t made. . . .

From a centered, open place within, remember something you did, or failed to do, that causes you to feel badly when you are reminded of it. . . . As you remember the mistake you criticize yourself for, experience the guilt and pain you have carried in your heart because you made decisions back then that you later wished you hadn’t made. . . .

In your mind, or aloud if no one will hear you, say:

“When I look back on what you did or did not do, I have a difficult time accepting you. I expected you to make choices you did not know how to make. I expected you to do things you did not know how to do. Those expectations have made me very critical of you. I wanted you to be different from who you were. Now I am willing to remove the conditions I placed on you to be someone you could not be at the time. I remove the demands and expectations that have kept me from accepting you. My love and affection go out to you just as you were then and are now.”

A Hopeful Message After You Forgive Yourself

Always remember this: if you have a hard time forgiving yourself because you believe you “should have” known something earlier in your life that you are just now learning, you are setting up stumbling blocks you can do without.

Therefore, if you wish you’d have been smarter sooner, I would like to give you a statement that has been extremely helpful for many people. It goes like this:

Until now I haven’t known how to. . . [WHATEVER IT IS THAT YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO],” but now I am learning how to. . .[WHATEVER IT IS YOU HAVEN’T KNOWN HOW TO DO AND ARE WILLING TO LEARN].

That is a true statement and one that includes the hopeful message that it is never too late to learn lessons in life.

Forgiving Others

Similar to the exercise above that focuses on forgiving yourself, this one is designed for all those who have done and said things that have harmed you in some way—or that you have interpreted as being the cause of harm.

Exercise to Forgive Others

Begin by imaging that the person who has harmed you in some way is sitting in front you. If you were physically injured by that person and are afraid of being too close, either have the person be so far away that he or she could not possibly hurt you or allow an image to form of something that could protect you if you sense that you need protection. . . .

Look carefully at who this person was when he or she hurt you emotionally, physically or financially. Take a moment to consider how he or she became the person he or she was at the time this happened. Based on how that person was raised and on what that person had experienced up to that time, could he or she have been any different when this happened? . . .

You begin by saying:

“When you said or did_______ . . . I was hurt and angry. . . . I would have preferred _____ . . . . But you did not. . . . When I think about what you said or did, . . . I have let myself be tied to negative feelings. . . . I have held onto my demand .. . that you should have said or done something different. . . . I no longer choose to hold onto the tension and hurt . . . that accompanies my memory of what you said or did

“Therefore, I cancel the demands, expectations and conditions I placed on you that you should have ____ or should not have ______. . . You are totally responsible for your own actions and deeds.”

“I now send my love (or acceptance) to you as a human being, . . . just as you were and are now.”

And now imagine that your love or acceptance is going out to the other person. Take your time to experience how your body feels when you release the conditions you placed on this person that he or she be someone they did not know how to be or, for whatever reason, were unable to be. . . .

Do not be concerned if you do not feel totally accepting of the other person; that is often the case when the hurt is very, very deep and the damage created was great. Yet when you at least attempt to let go of old demands that people be different from who they are, accept whatever sense of relief you experience as being a gift you give yourself. Each time you repeat this exercise, you will feel release from another piece of the pain you’ve been carrying in your heart.

Exploring FORGIVENESS in Your Life

What does forgiveness mean to you?

For what do you most need to forgive yourself and are you ready to do that?

For what do you most need to forgive another person and are you ready to do that?

Often, when we have been hurt in some way, it is hard to recognize the role we played in the situation. However, as you remember something that continues to bother you, how might you review that experience with the acknowledgement that it usually takes two to make an argument—and that you may have contributed to the problem?

What symbol best represents forgiveness—something that can remind you of this important quality when you recognize that you are clinging to resentment of someone’s actions, including yours, that would best be released so that peace can enter your heart?

This exploration of forgiveness was created by Arlene Harder, MA, MFT, resident of Villa Gardens, a Front Porch Retirement Community in Pasadena, California. The material is not copyrighted and may be used with attribution. (Photo on Shutterstock by Jacob_09.)