Forgiveness means choosing to release resentment, anger, bitterness, hatred, and the desire to punish or avenge past offenses or wrongdoings. We can choose to forgive even when the offender does not deserve it.
Why do we do this? We forgive in order to dissolve our attachments to the past. Although an offense in our life may be long past, we often continue to battle the memory, which becomes a burden that weighs us down and prevents us from moving on. In the battle, we might be judging the wrongdoer for his or her "badness." We might be planning how we will get even or punish the offender. In forgiving, we step back from the battle. We free ourselves from the past, realizing that punishing, getting even, and judging do not heal. We stop insisting that the past be changed before we can again be happy, and we instead take responsibility for our present happiness. Paradoxically, in releasing the burden, we gain greater control of our lives.
Forgiving ourselves is just as important. If we can't come to terms with our own past wrongdoings, then our present experience becomes colored by shame--we see only the bad in ourselves. Such a self-concept saps the joy in our life's journey: there is not pleasure in unremitting guilt, self-loathing, or self-condemnation. Shame drains the energy we need to respond fully to others' needs. It is difficult to be sensitive to others' needs when we are focused on, and weakened by, our own unhealed wounds. We might think that constantly reliving the offense will prevent its recurrence, but in reality such replaying tends to diminish the capacity to live well.
Confucius said, "The more a person knows, the more the person forgives." The following steps can help us to apply forgiveness to ourselves.
1. Acknowledge the hurt that has been done to others and self by your behavior. Sit with this idea and consider it in a kind, nonjudgmental way. Realistically assign responsibility for the offense. For example, a rape victim might blame herself completely because she thinks she was careless. A more realistic view is that the perpetrator was responsible for the crime, not the victim.
2. Make amends as much as possible (apologize, restore what was taken, and so on).
3. Commit to live as honorably and constructively as you can, using what you now know. This is all anyone can do. Realize that the future is still uncharted, and wrong turns can be expected.
4. Make friends with guilt. Guilt is a beautiful emotion that alerts us when something is wrong so that we may achieve peace with our conscience. Without conscience there would be no morality. So we can greet guilt cordially and with acceptance, just as we do all other emotions. After we respond to guilt, it has done its job and we can release it.
5. Judge behaviors, not core worth. Remember that who you are at the core is bigger than your isolated decisions, bad choices, or wrong turns. A bad decision made one day or during a particular period is not the essence of who you are. A wrong turn doesn't mean we can't correct course and get back on track, nor does it mean that the core value is lost. Wrong turns don't define us or invalidate our core worth; they only point out areas to improve. We can accept mistakes as a part of our history and then move on in life. In forgiving ourselves, we recognize that we have the potential to change and to reclaim the goodness within us.
6. Be willing to constantly feel imperfect. Being imperfect, as all of us are, does not negate worth or forever disqualify us from trying anew. To be human is to err. It is unkind to condemn oneself for doing so. If we have stumbled off a path we value, it is only destructive to think, "You see, I knew I couldn't do it." This is not who you are; it is just a thought. It would be much better to accept disappointment and think, "Imperfect people stumble; I can get up and back on the path."
7. Maintain the beginner's mind. Thinking "I'm no good" attaches us to the past in a negative and narrow way. The beginner's mind keeps us open to who we are and what we may become. This view is not limited by what we did in the past; instead it motivates us to reengage with life in a productive way.
8. Continue doing good. Reflect upon the good things you've done in the past. Keep doing these things.
9. Let the offender off the hook. It is said that no one in his or her right mind will intentionally do a hurtful thing. One who does wrong might be suffering or ignorant of how to get his or her needs met constructively. If you have done your best to rectify the offense and correct your course so you'll be less likely to do it again, let yourself off the hook.