Achieving Freedom through Forgiveness

Illustration by Parker Cox

Illustration by Parker Cox


At surface level, forgiveness seems to be an action that is both thrown-around (“I’m sorry!? I’m sorry!?”) and also withheld (“I’m never forgiving that person!”). At closer look, there is an ocean’s depth of understanding and emotion beneath forgiveness. So what’s the BIG F all about anyway?   

Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment towards a person or group who has harmed you.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean:

  • excusing offenses

  • reconciliation or return to the same relationship

  • accepting the same harmful behaviors

Forgiveness can be challenging although it is most often the healthiest path forward, allowing us to acknowledge the wound, maybe understand another perspective and process our emotions in non-harmful ways. For a different view, it is interesting to consider that the opposite of forgiveness is punishment, resentment, hard-heartedness or ruthlessness.  

Forgiveness is not always about forgiving someone else. What happens when we commit the offense ourselves? What about forgiving oneself? The great Maya Angelou tells us, “Forgiveness is the greatest gift you can give yourself.”  

But why is it so great? If it’s so great, why doesn’t forgiveness always feel so great? Why doesn’t it always feel like enough?  What’s wrong with me for not feeling forgiven or feeling like forgiving another? Is something wrong with me for questioning if I am worthy or another person is worthy of forgiveness?  Welcome to the depths of the Big F. Forgiveness is complex, so let’s explore it together.

Sure, it’s important to take responsibility for mistakes, but it’s equally important to address feelings of shame and guilt. All humans experience shame or guilt (unless there is a mental illness preventing one from feeling these emotions) and intense guilt and shame aren’t good for anyone in the long run!

The more shame you heal, the more you will be able to see yourself more clearly—the light and the dark. You will be able to recognize and admit how you have harmed yourself and others. Your relationships with others will change and deepen. More importantly, it is possible that your relationship with yourself will improve.

Self-forgiveness is not only recommended but essential if we wish to become emotionally healthy. Don’t feel like you deserve a peace of mind? You’re not alone.  Many people experience resistance to this work or even to the idea of self-forgiveness. You may view self-forgiveness as “letting yourself off the hook,” as if self-punishment is the only way to live or self-judgment is the only way to improve.  Don’t believe it! These are distorted beliefs!

Negative self-judgment and self-blaming can actually become an obstacle to self-improvement. Consider this; the more shame you feel, the more self-esteem crashes and then the more stuck you will feel. Shame can cause you to defend your actions by refusing to see faults and not being open to criticism or improvement.

The most powerful reason: If you do not forgive yourself and change the pathway of life, the shame you carry will keep you tuned to the same old patterns of life and you will continue to act in harmful ways toward others and yourself. Humans are complex, and forgiving yourself will help you to heal one layer and free you to continue becoming a better human being. Without the burden of self-hatred, you can literally transform your life.  You deserve it.

Mental Exercises

If you feel moments of shame or guilt, notice it, don’t judge it, allow yourself a set period of time (a few moments or at max 2 minutes) to feel the emotion and allow yourself the space to take some action. Remember the following:

  1. Self-Compassion: Acknowledge and understand that trauma(s) experienced creates problems that may have been outside your awareness. Until now, you’ve been blind to them and now you can take inventory to take action towards addressing them.  

  2. Common Humanity: Remember that we all experience shame or guilt.

  3. Effort for Your Own Forgiveness: Take responsibility and commit to yourself, talk with a sponsor, a confidant and your higher power. 

  4. Ask for Forgiveness: Apologize and make amends unless doing so would cause more harm. In this case, practice self-forgiveness.

Mind-body Exercises

  1. Feel your feet and body connected to support beneath it. Settle into these supports.

  2. Take 5 breaths in/out as if you’re smelling a spring flower.

  3. Imagine receiving oxygen into your heart and imagine breathing in/out of your heart space (like a superhero collecting energy into the heart chest and sending out rays of divine light). This is to create coherence – your heart and brain communicating through strong electrical signals.

  4. Write a gratitude list. Start small.

  5. Journal about shame/guilt. If you are harboring resentment or pent-up emotion, journal 3-5 ways that resentment has caused you to change your plans. Example: you don’t talk with a loved one because he/she talks with someone you dislike. Speak of it during counseling sessions.