Lesson 4 of 7 - optimize your relationships

Paths to Self and
 Mutual Forgiveness

Options Toward Saying
"I Pardon You"

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/relate/forgive.htm

Updated  02-09-2015

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“Forgiveness is not the misguided act of condoning irresponsible, hurtful behavior. Nor is it a superficial turning of the other cheek that leaves us feeling victimized and martyred. Rather it is the finishing of old business that allows us to experience the present, free’ of contamination from the past.” 
— Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.

      This brief YouTube video summarizes what you'll find here:

      This is one of a series of articles on Lesson 4 - optimize your relationships. These articles build on Lessons 1 - 3, and prepare you for Lesson 5 (evolve a high-nurturance family) and Lesson 6 (effective parenting).

      This article explores a vital component of personal serenity and healthy relationships - forgiveness. It offers...

  • Perspective on forgiveness, and how it relates to several other emotions;

  • Requisites for forgiving yourself and other people;

  • Perspective on forgiving common social offenses, including divorce.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this site and the premises underlying it;

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 4 ;

  • Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) and what it means to be a GWC; and...

  • the lethal [wounds + ignorance] cycle

  Perspective on Forgiveness

      Have you ever forgiven someone, including yourself? Have you been forgiven by another? What was did that mean? How did it feel? How would you define "to forgive" to an average pre-teen?

      Forgiveness is the "cure" for the human tendency to hang on to resentment, anger, and blame for  someone who hurts us. The "someone" can be us, when we violate our integrity or "do something stupid." So here, forgiveness means to "accept or excuse (vs. condone) offensive behavior, and let go of any significant hurt, anger, blame, resentment, or hostility toward the offender."  

      Forgiveness usually does not include regaining trust in, and respect for, the offender. Those are separate issues.

      This section focuses on...

  • pseudo and true forgiveness,

  • forgiveness and revenge,

  • remorse and regret,

  • shame and guilt,

  • forgiveness and "sin," and...

  • apologies.

Pseudo and True Forgiveness

      Premise - normal personalities like yours are composed of subselves, like an orchestra or sports team is composed of individually-talented players. Too little nurturance in a child's early years inhibits developing an innately-skilled personality "conductor" or "coach" - a subself called (here) the true Self.

      This means that without skilled intervention, a psychologically- neglected child may grow up being controlled by bickering, impulsive subselves - a false self. This results in up to five additional psychological wounds which cause significant health and relationship problems until the person hits bottom and chooses to recover.

      My 36 years' clinical experience with over a thousand average Midwestern-US women and men suggests that most American adults and their children and parents are significantly-wounded people who don't know they're being controlled by a well-meaning, myopic false self. There are many behavioral clues of this unseen wounding..

      Pseudo forgiveness occurs when one or more personality subselvessay and mean "I really forgive me/you," while one or more other subselves (like an Inner Critic) insist relentlessly "You scum - I'll never forgive myself and/or you for what I (or you) did!" The person's words say one thing, and their actions say the opposite: a confusing double message. The unseen wounds and communication ignorance that cause double messages usually hinder kids' and adults' grieving (accepting) inevitable life losses (broken bonds.)

      A common sign of false-self dominance is the compulsion to keep replaying past offenses over and over, and re-experiencing the original hurt, outrage, and resentment. Logic and "willpower" are of little use in stopping this compulsion, because the subselves that cause it believe they're helping you. Patient inner-family therapy ("parts work") can end this frustrating dynamic. 

      True forgiveness happens when (a) all subselves genuinely agree to stop blaming the offender, and they (b) trust the resident true Self to make safe, effective decisions. When this occurs, the person's words and actions consistently match, healthy grieving can proceed, new bonds can grow, and mutual trust and respect may (re)build, over time. Does this make sense to you?

      Implication: if you want to forgive yourself or another person but retain bitterness, resentment, and blame, assess yourself for psychological wounds. Then work to free your true Self to guide your other subselves. Lesson 1 here provides an effective framework and resources for doing this over time. If another person is unable to truly forgive, view them compassionately as wounded and unaware, not "bad" or "holding a grudge."

Forgiveness, Regret, and Remorse

      Think of the last time you regretted something. What did that feel like? Did you blame yourself for not having recognized or done something? Did you blame someone else for "making you" do something you regretted? Both?

      Regret ["If only I had (not)..."] may merit grieving the loss of an opportunity. It may or may not merit forgiving yourself or someone else. Typical Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) (that is, their biased Critic, Shamed Child, and Perfectionist subselves) are prone to blame the host person for things beyond their control.

      Remorse is like regret with the added feeling of sorrow, as in "I'm so sorry I (offended or hurt you)." Remorse can be spontaneous and genuine, or dutiful and strategic. Sincere apologies are a common way of reducing remorse and regret - and may promote reciprocal forgiveness.   

Forgiveness vs. Revenge

      A primal reflex in some wounded people is "You hurt me, so I'll make you suffer." Such people may quote the Biblical text "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or claim "fairness" as moral justification for their behavior. America used nuclear mega-death as a response to Japanese aggression and treachery in 1941. Opinions vary on whether we need forgiveness for this from the Japanese.

      Other responses have made global headlines: In India, Mahatma Ghandi answered British oppression and violence with passive resistance. Martin Luther King advocated non-violent responses to racial abuses in America. Many other world leaders have sought peaceful resolution between warring factions.

      Themes that emerge from these polar reactions to aggression and offense are self-protection and the pursuit of justice and equality. Premise - protecting yourself and your people from harm is morally justified. Retribution if you and your people are not in danger is not. How do you feel about this?

      Premise - people who seek revenge for some offense are probably guided by a primitive false self (wounded), and are unaware of that and what it means. They didn't cause this, and cannot control it, so they deserve compassion and forgiveness, not blame. That doesn't mean condoning their behavior or permitting aggression. How does your true Self feel about this opinion?

      More perspective on "forgiveness"...

Forgiveness, Shame, and Guilt

      Most healthy people who offend others feel some guilts ("I did a bad thing") and shame ("I am a bad thing."). Typical GWCs carry excessive guilts and shame that can hinder or block appropriate self-forgiveness. These can also promote dutiful (pseudo) apologies and forgiveness of other people rather than genuine ones.

      If you are burdened by chronic guilt and shame over old offenses or failures, then assess yourself for psychological wounds and consider personal recovery (see Lesson 1). Make guilt-free forgiveness part of your healing goals!

Forgiveness and "Sin"

      Some well-intentioned religions teach young kids and converts that violating God's rules ordained in their Scriptures is an absolute sin that needs penance and redemption to avoid eternal damnation. Unless believers moderate or reject this idea, they're prone to major guilt, shame, and anxiety that hinder self-forgiveness and personal serenity. They're also at risk of righteously judging others for "sinning," which hampers true (vs. dutiful or anxious) forgiveness.

      For more perspective on this complex subject, see this article after you finish this one.


      Genuine (vs. pretended or strategic) apologies encourage forgiveness. An effective apology...

  • identifies and takes responsibility for some hurtful behavior,

  • acknowledges the receiver's hurt, and...

  • expresses sincere regret and/or sorrow for having caused the hurt.

Sincere apologies demonstrate respect for the receiver. They require your true Self to guide your personality.

      Expecting, requesting, or demanding an apology will usually invalidate it, because true apologies must be spontaneous. ("You're just saying your sorry because I asked you to!") Some apologies are self-serving - e.g. to reduce guilt and shame, rather than to express genuine regret and sorrow. These pseudo apologies usually indicate false-self control, and leave both people feeling dissatisfied.

      Pause and notice what you're thinking and feeling.

      Now let's use the perspective above to explore...

Requisites for Forgiveness 

      If a child asked you "What do you need in order to forgive somebody?" what would you say? The answer depends on who the "somebody" is...

      Option: identify and validate your forgiveness "rules." Over your years, you've probably evolved semi-conscious attitudes (good/bads and right/wrongs); and rules (shoulds, oughts, have to's, and musts) about forgiveness. Your attitudes and rules may differ for adults, kids, parents, spouses, authorities, hero/ ines, and other people.

      For each belief or rule about forgiving people, meditate on "Where did I get this rule? Is this my belief, or am I using someone else's rule?" Patiently trust your Self's direction in evolving a set of authentic attitudes and guidelines, whether other people agree with them or not. Reaffirm and use your Bill of Personal Rights!

Forgiving Yourself

      Remember the last time you did something that caused you significant shame, guilt, and remorse? How have you let go of those feelings - or have you? Two unconscious strategies that some wounded people use are numbing ("I don't feel anything") and avoidance ("I just don't think about it.")

      Another popular way is distorting reality to convince yourself "I had to - I had no choice." (justification and rationalization). Another common distortion is minimizing - "Aw, It wasn't really that bad." These are all false-self strategies designed by diligent Guardian subselves (like the Magician) to spare your sensitive Shamed Child and Guilty Child from anguish. They are not self-forgiveness.

      Implication - a requisite for self forgiveness is having your true Self steadily guide your other subselves. S/He will own appropriate responsibility for your actions, and will know what else is needed to truly forgive yourself. That may include...

  • confronting your Inner Critic and Perfectionist to stop them from ceaselessly blaming you;

  • confronting your Magician to stop her/him from protectively distorting reality; and...

  • asserting and enforcing limits with other people who need to criticize or scorn you for your offense; and...

  • reminding all your subselves of your rights as a dignified, worthy person;

  • validating any rules your subselves feel you broke (guilts);

  • connecting your Guilty and Shamed Inner Kids with your comforting Nurturer;

  • grieving significant broken bonds and lost opportunities; and...

  • generating compassion and empathy for letting a false self take you over, and working to avoid repeating that; and...

  • deciding if apologies are warranted, and if so, delivering them promptly and appropriately.

      When your Self (capital "S") does these things, any significant or recurring shame, guilt, and remorse should dwindle, and you should be able to talk calmly about your offenses and mistakes.

Requisites for Forgiving Someone Else

      The best case is...

  • your true Self is guiding your other personality subselves,

  • the other person is guided by their true Self, and takes genuine responsibility for their offense;

  • you use a respectful I-message to describe factually how their behavior affected you;

  • s/he expresses genuine regret or remorse, and may apologize sincerely,

  • either or both of you are able to discuss and fully grieve any losses; and...

  • neither of you is significantly influenced by any other opinionated or affected people. 

      The challenge is - you can't make the other person want to empower their Self, take responsibility for and regret their offense, or want to avoid others' influence. Those must be spontaneous. So what can you do without those ideal factors? Options -

  • choose to believe that forgiveness is a gift to yourself - i.e. freedom from stressful emotions;

  • stay clear that forgiveness doesn't mean you approve the other's actions, and doesn't regain lost trust and respect. These are separate issues..

  • see the other person as wounded and unaware - with compassion, not blame, hostility, or scorn. The latter suggests a false self rules you.

  • Decide if you need to alter your relationship with the offender in some way - e.g. setting some new boundaries. Use your integrity as a guide. If you do, consider informing the other person and any other relevant people factually (vs. punitively) of your decision.

      Two special cases deserve comment - forgiving your parents and your Higher Power

Forgiving Your Parents

      Despite their best intentions, all parents and caregivers hurt their children at times. The hurts range from minimal to traumatic. Do you agree? Ultimately, it's up to each of us adults to evaluate these hurts, and decide if we need to forgive those people who raised us for some lacks, mistakes, and offenses.

      Common surface (secondary) offenses include premature conception, child neglect, abuse, disrespect, abandonment, emotional unavailability, enmeshment, and harmful discipline. These do injure young kids. Each of them is caused by parents and grandparents being...

  • psychologically wounded and unaware, and...

  • ignorant of kids' developmental and special needs, and of effective childcare principles (Lesson 6).

      Significantly-wounded parents often don't become aware of their wounds and ignorance until hitting bottom in mid-life. Then it's too late to avoid injuring their kids. What they can do is affirm they did they best they could, forgive themselves and their ancestors, make amends where possible, and work to protect their grandkids and descendents from wounds and unawareness.

      If your parents hurt you "too much," you can choose to (a) harbor resentment and anger about their surface offenses, or (b) award them compassion for their wounds and ignorance, and appreciate the things they were able to give you. The latter choice is more likely if your true Self is guiding your personality.

      Are you able to discuss this honestly with your parents now, if they're living? If you're raising someone's kids, are you aware of any wounds and unawareness in your family adults? If so, are you doing anything about it?

Forgiving God

      Some religious people can feel betrayed or abandoned by God. For example, a 45-year-old client of mine had remained bitter at God for allowing her beloved mother to die when she (my client) was 13. When your Higher Power seems to offend or betray you, check for incomplete grief. If you find any, check your birth-family's and present-family's grieving policy for permission to mourn. Then see these options after you finish this article.

      Do these options seem reasonable? Do-able? How do they compare with how you usually forgive offenders - or don't?

       Let's see how these ideas apply to...

Forgiving Common Social Offenses

      Compare this premise to your life experience: typical adults and kids are offended by....

Dishonesty and Deception

      Lies range from minor to major, and harmless to devastating. The impact of a deception depends partly on who the other person is, what your relationship is, whether you expect them to tell the truth or not, and how the deception affects you. Lies usually imply disrespect and distrust.

      Reflect: what's your preferred way of reacting to major lies and deceptions - numb out? Hold a grudge? Pseudo pardon? Gossip? Rage? Punish? Blame? Truly forgive?

      You may be able to forgive the liars in your life more freely if you consider why they do so. My experience is, average kids and adults lie because (a) they're psychologically wounded (controlled by a false self), and/or (b) they don't feel safe telling the truth.

      The first merits your compassion, not scorn or hostility. The second suggests you may be unaware of doing something that makes truth-telling unsafe - like ridiculing, criticizing, ignoring, or distorting. For more perspective on both possibilities, see this and this after you finish this. 

Forgiving Betrayals and Broken Promises

      How would you explain betrayal to a pre-teen? Have you ever felt betrayed? Betrayed someone else? Let's say that the feeling of betrayal occurs when someone violates our trust. Trust (expectation) may come from...

  • assuming someone will do something or be a certain way, or...

  • having them agree to or promise something.

So when someone doesn't behave the way we expect them to, the problem may be our own misjudgment, not the other person.

      Have you ever broken a promise or commitment? Do you know why you did? Did you promise something you didn't mean to, or avoid some discomfort? Or did something happen which changed your priorities? The first usually comes from not knowing how to assert our boundaries or primary needs  - and/or not being clear on our personal rights. Those may be amplified by being fear-based or shame-based (wounded).

      If something beyond our control changes our priorities so we choose to break a promise or commitment, is that a betrayal? Does it merit forgiveness and an apology? An explanation? Regret? Notice your thoughts now, and who's thinking them.

Forgiving Affairs

      Most primary partners expect and commit to emotional and sexual fidelity, despite temptations. When one mate violates this - usually covertly - the other feels betrayed on several levels, and loses  trust. The betrayal can feel so primal that genuine forgiveness is hard to grant.

      Premise - most affairs occur because the (a) unfaithful mate is not getting her or his partnership needs met well enough, and (b) the mates can't problem-solve effectively. Underneath that, one or both partners may be significantly wounded and unaware, and may have chosen the wrong person to commit to, at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons.

      From this view, both mates may need to forgive themselves and/or their parents for these factors that they didn't cause and weren't aware of. For more perspective on affairs, see this article after you finish this one. 


      This article provides perspective and options on forgiving yourself and other people. It offers...

  • perspective on what forgiveness is, and how it relates to revenge, regret and remorse, shame and guilt, and "sin."

  • the difference between pseudo and true forgiveness;

  • basic requisites for forgiveness; 

  • options for forgiving yourself and someone else; and...

  • common social offenses that merit forgiveness;

      If you learned something useful from reading this - what is it, and what do you want to do with it?

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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