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Forgiveness in Healthy Self-Love

Synopsis: Looking at forgiveness and healthy self-love; what forgiveness means and does not mean; benefits to the forgiver and the forgiven; the inability to forgive and its special meanings; blind forgiveness; self forgiveness; considering the tenant “love forgives all”.

Looking at Forgiveness And Self-Love

Forgiveness is a part of healthy, real love but sometimes it comes into conflict with healthy self-love.  Healthy self-love requires good self-care and a part of that is self-protection.  Forgiveness poorly done may make you vulnerable to repeated hurt and harm experiences.

Nevertheless, without forgiveness many love relationships cannot heal or continue to grow and fulfill their wonderful potential.  That consequence of non-forgiveness is self-defeating and, therefore, is not healthfully self-loving.  Offering forgiveness usually is an act of healthy self-love because it helps the forgiver improve in several different ways, (more on that a little later).  The problem is forgiveness can be enacted in ways that work against the self and repeated maltreatment may result.  To do really good, healthy self-love in the area of forgiveness often takes some careful study.

What Forgiveness Means

What do you think of when you think of forgiveness?  Is it something you see yourself to be good at or more poor at?  Is forgiveness something you are just puzzled about or do you not even think about it?  Do you desire forgiveness more than you give it?  Do you give it to yourself?  Are there people you want forgiveness from and/or people who want forgiveness from you?  Do you have relationships in which forgiveness could play a more important role?  What’s easy for you to forgive and what is harder?  Are there things you think it is impossible for you to forgive?  Are there things no one should forgive?  What did the way you grew up teach you or perhaps subtly model for you about forgiveness?

For some people forgiveness means giving people a pardon from being punished for transgressions they have committed.  For others it mostly has to do with absolution from blame.  For still others it is a reprieve from punishment or penalty they have been experiencing.  Some see forgiveness as a release and being set free from certain duties and obligations.  For still others it’s all about no longer having to feel guilty.  Forgiveness can mean the end of rejection and being allowed to continue in a love relationship.  Many understand forgiveness as giving them another chance to do something they previously failed at.  There, of course, are those who see receiving forgiveness as another chance to manipulate, deceive and unfairly misuse others.

In a number of religious communities forgiveness is taught as an act of compassion, mercy, generosity, charity, humanity and kindheartedness.  This pretty much is the view of certain ethicist groups as well as those who just are generally good-hearted.  In more so-called “hard-hearted” populations forgiveness is seen as stupid, a foolish mistake, a weakness, a risky needless behavior, an idiotic surrendering of power or at best something very rarely to engage in.

A dictionary understanding of forgiveness purports it has to do with the cessation of resentment and retribution attempts concerning things one feels wronged about.  It also has to do with relief from debts and penalties owed and the ending of claims against one.  Psychologically forgiveness relates to not emotionally holding previously perceived wrongdoings against the wrongdoer.  It also has to do with not wanting to, or acting to get revenge, get even, render payback, be vindictive, retaliate, avenge, punish, hurt, harm, destroy or in any way negate another.  Forgiveness is given, or not given, in relationship to acts others have committed which are judged by you to be wrong, undesirable or faulty.

Forgiveness can involve giving people another chance, not barring people from certain opportunities, and restoring one or more others to a former position or opportunity. Forgiveness also can mean that to accomplish it you probably have to put your emotions about being wronged to rest.  Forgiveness can mean that if you are actively involved with the person you are forgiving that you attempt to at least treat them decently, fairly, democratically, kindly, respectfully and with human-to-human love.  In many love relationships forgiveness means picking up where you left off, making up, being restored to okayness in the relationship, and veering away from anything that would lead to a breakup.

What Forgiveness Does Not Mean

You might have heard the phrase “forgive and forget”.  To forgive and forget is the advice often given when there have been love relationship problems.  Let’s be clear here.  Forgiveness does not mean cognitively forgetting.  Your memory won’t go away because you forgive someone for something.  It may mean you think about the alleged wrongdoing less, and feel much less upset about that wrongdoing.  Forgiveness does not mean you have to stop protecting yourself from possibly being harmed in the future by someone repeating their wrongful actions against you.

Forgiveness does not mean you won’t feel cautious, apprehensive and avoidant of people who you perceive to have caused you hurt or harm.  Forgiveness does not mean that you are required to be involved with someone you no longer want to be involved with.  As the old Texas saying goes “I can forgive a snake for being poisonous but that don’t mean I have to pet it.”

Forgiveness does not mean trust is automatically and fully restored.  The protective mechanisms of healthy self-love may keep a forgiving person at least occasionally suspicious, doubtful and skeptical about anyone they have forgiven.  Forgiveness may mean that they will give someone another chance and perhaps even act in a trusting way but an inner sense of trust is usually best understood as having to be earned by repeated good experience over time.

You can forgive someone but out of healthy self-love decide not to deal with them anymore.  That is done not for vengeance but for self protection.  If you judge yourself unable to withstand being betrayed or otherwise harmed again by someone you love saving yourself is the best, healthy self-love act you can do.  It also may be the best thing you can do for the one you love because it prevents them from again acting in ways that are destructive to you and then possibly having the guilt and repercussions from having done that.  So, forgiveness does not necessarily and automatically have to mean a relationship will continue.

Forgiveness does not mean it won’t happen again.  Whatever you are forgiving someone for may be something they do again.  Is your self-love strong enough to re-experience that?  Whatever it is, if they do it again will you be able to keep yourself sufficiently okay?  Maybe you will forgive yourself for something that you do again.  Will self-forgiveness work for or against you in that situation? 

Forgiveness is not very advisable when it is likely to lead to the repeating of a destructive action, the weakening of self-control, or the rewarding of ‘toxic behavior’.  Forgiveness especially is not advisable when it is perceived as giving permission for repeating a transgression, as it sometimes is.  I once heard a woman say “My screwing around really is OK because my husband always ends up forgiving me after he finds out”.

Benefits to the Forgiver

Did you know there are physical benefits to forgiving for the one doing the forgiving?  Research done at the Stanford University Forgiveness Project shows those doing forgiveness have fewer backaches, less muscle tension, less likelihood of dizziness, fewer and milder headaches, and fewer and milder stomach upset experiences.  Those who act to forgive also tend to have healthier appetites and sleep patterns, more general energy, and more general health and well-being.

Psychologically the benefits of learning and acting to forgive include reduced feelings of hurt, reductions in anger, reductions in stress and depression, becoming more hopeful, more optimistic, and more compassionate.  Research also has shown that forgiveness is often the key to becoming unblocked when there is some obstacle to progressing in life.

Forgiveness enables the forgiver to go on to more productive and enjoyable living.  People who have long been unforgiving and then learn to forgive report attaining a much greater sense of freedom from anguish and negativity.  Generally forgiveness results in a cessation of re-experiencing all sorts of different, negative emotions and then improved self-concept.  In these ways acting and feeling forgiveness is a good, healthy, self-love behavior.  Thus, those wishing to be good at a healthy self-love will do well to work at developing the love skill called forgiveness.

Benefits To the Forgiven

I like to suggest that whenever someone is forgiven for something that the forgiver and the forgiven talk with each other about what the benefits are because people sometimes understand those benefits quite differently.  Naturally there can be a sense of relief on the part of the person receiving the forgiveness.  Hopefully there will be a sense of gratitude and a motivation to live up to some standard of behavior better than before.  That, most likely, will mean less stress and less agony, probably less guilt, and hopefully more harmony in the relationship.  Past that, the people involved may have to sort of make a contract about what the benefits are to the relationship they have with one another.

Does the forgiveness mean everything is okay and they can pick up and proceed as before, or is there a probationary period, or is the relationship dramatically altered in some way?  Until both people clearly know what the benefits of a forgiveness act are, misunderstandings and other difficulties could occur.

The Inability to Forgive

Some people have an inability to forgive.  This has several possible special meanings.  The truly emotionally strong are much more able to forgive than the weak.  The weak, perhaps only subconsciously, understand that they are weak and if their forgiveness were to be betrayed they would be destroyed or hurt more than they can stand.  Hence, they do not forgive, or at least they do not forgive easily.  The problem with this position is the inability to forgive is not very good self-protection.  It usually alienates and isolates people and can keep people stuck in a stagnant life-position.

Some are unable to forgive certain things.  However, what those unforgivable things are has great variation.  Here’s an example.  In several cultures various sexual transgressions are among the hardest things to forgive.  If someone has trouble like this it just may mean that person has been severely programmed to regard sexual transgressions as especially awful.  It also can mean that sexuality is that person’s area of greatest weakness or insecurity.  In a number of cultures and subcultures sexual transgressions are much more easily forgiven but lying and deception, theft, destruction of property, disrespect of family, anti-religious behavior, or some other thing is not considered forgivable.

Inability to forgive often means a person is stuck or blocked in their own healing or healthful growing.  The recommendation here usually is counseling or psychotherapy.  Sometimes religious-based counseling is in order.  The inability to forgive sometimes traps people in a vengeance cycle.  In this cycle two or more people seek vengeance against each other for previous acts of vengeance committed against them.

Thus, revenge-seeking makes one become vulnerable to retaliation efforts, which definitely is not a healthy self-loving way to behave.  Tragically there are whole families, clans, tribes, other large groups of people, and even whole societies who were trained to have great self-disrespect unless they ‘get even’, seek revenge and act to retaliate.  Sometimes the most healthfully self-loving thing people belonging to such groups can do is find a way to exit the group and join with those who are more healthfully love-oriented.  People trained with a strong revenge orientation who later discover forgiveness sometimes report becoming astonished with a resulting lighthearted sense of freedom.

Blind Forgiveness

There are people who forgive too much, too easily and too often.  By doing so they repeatedly set themselves up for misuse and abuse.  They are likely blind to the importance of seeing the repercussions of ‘forgiveness done without wisdom and self-care’.  Frequently this is an important symptom of low, healthy self-love.  Commonly such people are so in need of outside sources of love, affirmation, inclusion, friendship, acceptance, etc. that they will forgive anyone anything in order to get what they think they need.

This means that their forgiveness will be regarded as ‘cheap’ by those they give it to.  When this is the case let me suggest that counseling and therapy for developing healthy self-love definitely is in order.  There also are people who’s religious or ethical position is one of offering endless, easy, quick forgiveness to all, and especially to those who say they desire it.  That can be a prescription for useless martyrdom.  With these people following the logic of “loving others AS you love yourself” might lead to thinking that greater self-protection could be viewed as OK and desirable.


Unfortunately there are a large number of people who can forgive everybody but themselves.  They may see their duty as to give forgiveness to everyone but themselves which in most theologies is absurd.  These usually are people who have been trained in their upbringing for torturing themselves with perfectionistic standards.  That can be a very serious problem and may best be overcome through counseling and therapy.  The healthfully self-loving are self-forgiving.  When they make a mistake or do something they later wish they hadn’t done, the healthfully self-loving work to learn from the experience but don’t de-energizing themselves by wasting time in self-punishment or debilitating inadequacy feelings – it just is not their way.

There may be a period of intense dislike for what they have done, usually quickly followed by an intense dedication to do better.  The healthfully self-loving know they are only human and humans living active, vital lives do lots of things they later wish they had not done.  What counts to the healthfully self-loving is not so much what they have done in the past but what they do now and next with the understanding and dedication to do better.

Love Forgives All

Great love can forgive greatly.  Puny love, not so much.  Several religions and philosophies teach that through the grand power and transcendence of love all things are forgivable.  Certainly the great and wise living exemplifications of love throughout history (Buddha, Jesus, Rumi, Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, etc.) are seen as testifying to this tenet.  If your love is truly great you too may be able to forgive all.  Remember that does not mean you, therefore, automatically and necessarily have to act against your own, healthy self-love.  Be wise and whenever possible live within the context of “Love Others AS You Love Yourself”.

As always – Go and Grow with Love

Dr. J. Richard Cookerly

Love Success Question Is there anyone you would do well to forgive that you haven’t yet?

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