158: Forgiving Yourself & Forgiving Others

Sep 12, 2023

As discussed last week, You Might Be an Asshole. Nobody is perfect, and that includes other people besides yourself. This week’s episode is all about learning how to forgive yourself when you fall short of your own expectations, and forgiving others when things don’t work out the way you’d hoped or expected.

Forgiveness gets tossed around as a concept. The definition of forgiveness we're using today is to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake. Forgiveness in this form is powerful, especially when negotiating an infidelity situation. However, there are some nuances you need to be clear about before you start forgiving yourself or anyone else in your life.

Tune in this week to discover how to go about forgiving yourself and forgiving others. Dr. Marie Murphy is discussing why believing you should be forgiving can make you even more resentful, and showing you how to decide to forgive yourself or someone else for the best possible reasons or decide that forgiveness isn’t necessary,

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with Dr. Marie Murphy by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • The moral significance that our society associates with forgiveness and why that makes it a loaded subject.

  • Why forgiveness generally feels better than nursing a grudge.

  • How forgiveness allows you to engage in your life in a way that feels a lot lighter than staying resentful.

  • Why forgiveness isn’t about giving somebody else a pardon.

  • The problem with telling yourself you should just move on and stop being so upset.

  • Where to focus to help you make a decision about forgiving somebody.

  • How to to see the options you have when you or someone else does something you don’t like.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

You are listening to Your Secret Is Safe With Me, non-judgmental talk about infidelity with Dr. Marie Murphy. If you’re looking for new perspectives on complicated relationship issues, you’ve come to the right place. 

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy.  I’m a relationship coach and I provide non-judgmental assistance to people who are cheating on their partner or engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity.  A lot of the advice out there for people who are cheating is little more than thinly veiled judgment, but that is not what I provide.  I believe you are entitled to guidance and support that respects the fullness of your humanity, and the complexity of your situation – no matter what you’re doing.  I can help you navigate all of the emotional and practical challenges that come with infidelity situations – and I can help you make decisions about how you want to handle your situation that you feel great about.  Sometimes when we’re in the midst of a complicated infidelity situation, it can seem like we don’t have any good options, but I can help you see that you probably have a lot more options than you think you do, and I can help you make the very best of the choices you have.  When you’re ready to get to work, I’m here to help.  You can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, and you can learn about the coaching packages I offer new clients beyond that initial session on the services page of my website.  Mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.

Okay, this week’s episode is sort of a complement to, or a continuation of themes I talked about in last week’s episode, which was called “You Might Be an Asshole.”  One of the important premises of that episode was that there really isn’t any way to get through life being perfect, and in fact, there may be times in life when other people think you’re a total asshole and perhaps you think you’re an asshole too.  Another important premise was that when we get intimately involved with other humans, there are probably going to be times in our relationships where things don’t work out the way both parties would like.  And so this week we’re going to talk about how we can deal with other people’s behavior that we don’t like – and how we can relate to our own actions that we don’t like.  And as the title of this episode would suggest, we’re going to talk about this within the framework of forgiveness, or forgiving.  

What does it mean to forgive?  This word gets tossed around a lot, and there are a lot of definitions or conceptualizations of what it means to forgive.  Here’s one that I think is pretty good:

“To forgive is to stop feeling angry or resentful towards someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake.”

And I want to suggest that this can be a pretty great thing.  Obviously, that’s not an original idea – lots of people will tell you that forgiveness is pretty great.  But I think what’s important here is to be really attuned to this specific definition of forgiveness, or what it means to forgive, and what it includes and does not include.  

Sometimes, when people talk about forgiveness, they imply or even say outright that the value of forgiveness is moral in nature.  Or more specifically, it’s important to forgive because that makes you a BETTER PERSON.  And what I see is that this is where forgiveness starts to seem pretty loaded for a lot of people.  So many of us really want to be good, and don’t want to be bad, or not-good, so we think that we SHOULD forgive, because that will make us good.  But it’s pretty hard to SHOULD ourselves into forgiving, for reasons I will soon discuss, and so we find ourselves in a really tough spot.  We think we SHOULD forgive, but we can’t, so we feel angry or resentful towards the original thing, AND we feel bad about ourselves for continuing to feel angry and resentful towards the original thing – or in other words, for not being able to forgive.  And then we just go deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of feeling terrible, and that doesn’t lead to anything great.

I want to suggest that we at least temporarily put aside the idea that forgiveness has moral significance.  If you want to believe that it’s better to forgive than to not forgive, and that you’re a good person if you forgive and a not-good person if you don’t forgive, I’m not going to try wrestle you out of thinking that way.  But I do suggest that you experience with putting that kind of thinking aside, at least temporarily.  Because when we get super concerned about trying to be good, and trying not to be bad, we often abnegate our own humanity in ways that don’t get us great results.

So, if forgiving isn’t about your moral worth, what is it about?  Well, not harboring anger or resentment usually feels a lot better than indulging these feelings on an ongoing basis.  NOT nursing a grudge usually feels a lot better than nursing a grudge.  There are exceptions to this, of course, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that moving through anger and resentment usually feels MUCH better than staying stuck in it.  And when we feel better, we’re able to engage in our lives in ways that we usually like better than the ways we engage in our lives when we aren’t feeling great.  And that, I would argue, is a really big deal and a really good thing.

Sometimes people say that forgiveness isn’t for other people, it’s for you.  And when folks say this, they often mean that forgiving someone is not about giving someone a pardon, so to speak, or letting them know that you’ve ceased to be angry with them, or perhaps, letting them know that you don’t blame them for what they did, anymore.  It’s about liberating yourself from your own anger and resentment.  And I think this is a fine point, but I also believe that the benefits of forgiving don’t have to be separated into benefits for us, OR benefits for other people.  I think the two can go hand in hand quite nicely.  So if you really like the idea of bestowing forgiveness upon someone else, I think that COULD be a really fine thing to like, UNLESS you get hooked on the idea that bestowing forgiveness upon someone else is your ticket to moral superiority.  That’s where things can get pretty funny pretty quickly.

But, when you free yourself from anger and resentment, that will have an impact on how you’re able to engage with others, and it will probably be an impact that you consider positive, and that other people may consider positive, too.

So forgiveness can be pretty great for us and by extension for others, but the challenge is that a lot of times, the things we most “need” to forgive are things that we believe we have every right to be angry about.  

Forgiveness might be pretty easy when something happens that we aren’t that upset about.  But when we are most trapped in anger and resentment – and thus, suffering the most, and the most in need of relief – it’s because something has happened that we truly do not like.  It’s because something has happened that we believe we have every right to be angry about.  It’s because something has happened that we can’t see our way out of resenting!

And thus when people tell us that we really SHOULD forgive because it’s for our own good, or because it will make us the better person, or for any other reason, we may effectively hit a brick wall.  How are we supposed to stop feeling angry and resentful when we believe we have every right to feel angry and resentful – and we can’t even begin to imagine NOT being angry and resentful about whatever it is we’re angry and resentful about?

If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you’ve heard me talk about the relationship between our thoughts and our feelings.  Our thoughts generate our feelings.  And if we like, we can use this knowledge to our advantage.  If we want to feel different feelings, we can change what we think about anything or everything.  And doing this can be tremendously beneficial.

However, there are times in life when we feel awful about something, but we don’t want to change our thinking, even if doing so would potentially bring us great relief.  When something happens that we really don’t like, we may not want to stop disliking what happened.  We may not want to stop thinking that what happened was bad, or problematic, or awful, or otherwise objectionable.  Or, we may in theory be open to changing our thinking about whatever it is that we didn’t like, but we not may be able to imagine alternate ways of thinking about whatever it was.  

So here’s the challenge: when we really don’t like something that’s happened – perhaps as the result of our own actions – how exactly do we stop feeling angry or resentful?  How do we forgive something that we think should never have occurred in the first place?  How can we adjust our thinking about what happened so that we can free ourselves from a self-created prison of anger and resentment, without having to deny or dismiss what we believe to be true – which may be that something happened that we really don’t like.

I believe that in order for us to really “do forgiveness,” in order for us to be able to forgive the things that we find hardest to forgive, it’s really helpful to start from two premises.  

The first is that we are allowed to not like certain things that happen in life.  What a lot of people do, in the service of attempting to forgive, is minimize or deny their own preferences and opinions.  They try to tell themselves that whatever it was that happened wasn’t really that bad, or that they shouldn’t be as upset about the thing that happened.  They tell themselves they should just let it go, or move on.  If this works for you, fine.  But I will tell you that this approach often does not work for people.  Telling yourself that you shouldn’t be upset about something that you are upset about is, effectively, a lie – or, from a different perspective, it’s an argument that doesn’t do you any justice.  So I highly recommend that you allow yourself to honor your existing beliefs about whatever it is that you think went wrong.  

And, I also encourage you to simultaneously consider the second premise.  And that is the world we live in can reasonably be considered a wild and crazy place.  It may be helpful to consider it a fact of the human experience that humans do all kinds of things, and we are pretty likely to consider some of the things humans do crazy at best, and pretty awful at worst.  And humans may not stop doing crazy and awful things anytime soon.  Whatever our preferences are, whatever we think should and should not happen in life, whatever we think people should or should not do, none of us can make the world conform to suit our likings. 

So in summary, I’m suggesting that we’re allowed to dislike things that happen in the world AND that there’s little chance of the world ceasing to be free of things we have the potential to dislike anytime soon.

And from there, what I want to suggest is that forgiveness can be facilitated by shifting our thinking about the significance of whatever happened that we can’t forgive, but want to.

We can still dislike whatever happened – whether it was our own behavior, or someone else’s, or some other thing that happened.

AND, we can start to consider other things that just might be true, in addition to the fact of us not liking what happened.  We can keep the truth of our dislike, and we can allow for the possibility that other things might also simultaneously be true.  

So what specifically could be true about the thing that happened, in addition to you not liking it?  Here are seven things that you might consider thinking or believing or asking yourself if you want to facilitate forgiveness.

Number one: You might want to consider the possibility that everyone is doing the best they can.  You could believe that this is true, in addition to really not liking something that someone did.

I will tell you that this is one of the most helpful thoughts that I think.  It’s one of the most beneficial beliefs that I hold.  And I will tell you that I really do believe this, even when other people do things that I really do not like.  And believe me, I have a lot of dislikes about things that other people do.  I’m not some enlightened being that has relinquished all of my preferences about how other people should behave, and how the world should work.  I’ve got plenty of preferences, but I attempt to hold them lightly, or hold them in conjunction with other beliefs.  And believing that we’re all doing the best we can helps me relate to my preferences in a way that helps me survive being a part of this crazy human experience!

And I know plenty of other people find this belief immensely helpful, but I also know that a lot of people resist this idea.  Fiercely.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a client tell me something to the effect of, “Well, if so and so were doing the best they could, they wouldn’t have done that thing.  If they were really doing the best they could, they obviously would not have done that thing that I didn’t like.”

And there are a couple of things I say in response to that kind of a comment, and the first is this.  How could we ever possibly know whether someone is doing the best they could in any given moment?  Even if that were a thing that could be objectively assessed, would we really have the means to assess that in someone else?  I’m not so sure that we could.  And moreover, if we choose to believe that we actually do have the power to determine whether or not someone is doing the best that they can in any given moment in time, that puts us in a terrible position of potentially having to scrutinize our behavior and the behavior of others to determine whether or not they REALLY are or were doing the best they can or could.  And do we really want to put ourselves in this position?  I find it so much more liberating to believe that we’re all doing the best we can, as far as I know – and I choose to believe that as far as I know is far enough.  

That brings me to the second thing that you might choose to consider to be true.  Even if we don’t like something that happened, even if we don’t like how we behaved in a certain situation or how someone else behaved, that doesn’t have to mean that anything went horribly wrong in the cosmic scheme of things.  So often, we tend to equate our preferences with the way things absolutely should or should not be.  In other words, we tend to think that if we like something, it is by definition good, or right, or acceptable.  And we tend to think that if we don’t like something, it is objectively bad, or not okay, or unacceptable.  This is where dealing with our preferences gets a little tricky.  It’s one thing to like or not like something.  It’s another thing to think that if we don’t like something, it’s an indication that something very bad has happened.

It can be a very interesting thing to allow for the possibility that we can both really dislike something, AND allow that maybe nothing has fundamentally gone wrong when something we dislike has happened.  So often we think – maybe implicitly, but also sometimes very explicitly – that the reason why we are upset is because something objectively terrible happened.  When I work with folks who have been cheated on – which I do, even though I don’t really advertise that – they often believe that this is the case.  And of course, our society tells us that this is the case.  Cheating is bad and horrible, and if someone does it to you, they’ve done something horribly wrong, and therefore, you have every right to be angry at them.  And of course, people who are cheating use this kind of thinking against themselves, too.  

And so often we don’t want to let go of this kind of thinking, because we think the world would fall apart if we let go of our ideas about what’s right and what’s wrong.  But would it?  You get to try it out and see.  I suggest you consider that it’s possible for you to really not like the fact that someone has cheated on you, if that’s happened – or really not like the fact that you’re cheating on someone, if that’s happening – WITHOUT believing that something has gone horribly wrong in the universe, in either event.  Your dislike of something is valid even if you loosen your grip on black and white ideas about what’s okay and what isn’t.  And there is a huge difference between not liking something and believing that it’s legitimate to not like something, and believing that you need to be right about the way life should always be.

On a related note, the third thing I suggest you consider believing on purpose is that it might be okay if life isn’t perfect.  This is the kind of thought that a lot of people are totally willing to believe when it’s applied to smaller things, but not as interested in believing when it’s applied to bigger things.  We kind of think that there’s a certain extent to which it’s okay for us to tolerate things not going the way we want them to, but beyond a certain point, it is fair and appropriate for us to expect that life work out for us in the ways we want it to.  Now, I want to be clear that I think it is GREAT to intentionally and deliberately clarify what’s important to us and go after it, and work towards creating lives that we love.  I am all in favor of that.  

But in conjunction with that, I think it's really important to remember that the world we live in is a wild and crazy and wonderful place, and sometimes shit happens that we just aren’t going to like.  As long as we have preferences at all, there are going to be times when things happen that we just don’t like.  Small things, and big things.  And what if that’s okay?  What if we can honor our preferences, and work towards creating more of what we want to experience in life – and also tolerate or even embrace the fact that sometimes shit is going to happen and we just aren’t going to be thrilled about it.  Because how on earth could life possibly be to our liking all the time?  Think about THAT if you’re having a hard time believing that it might be okay if life isn’t perfect.  How could things always unfold in exactly the manner you want them to?  How exactly would that work?

Okay, the fourth thing I want to suggest you consider is that sometimes we may “need” to have experiences we don’t like in order to learn and grow and evolve, and become the most fully realized version of ourselves.  Sometimes we may “need” to have experiences we really don’t like in order to work through the karmic lessons we have the opportunity to take on in this lifetime.

I’m using the word “need” here lightly.  Sometimes the idea that we “need” to have certain experiences, even if we really disliked them, is extended in ways that could be considered tasteless at best and completely oppressive at worst.  Like, for instance, sometimes someone will survive a harrowing assault, which leaves them shaken to their core and physically very injured – and someone will come along and say “Oh, you must have needed that experience for your spiritual growth.”  Or sometimes people will say, “Well, I guess those people needed to experience injustice and oppression in order to collectively evolve as a community.”  I think those kinds of perspectives are deeply problematic, and that’s why it’s tricky to use the word “need” here when I’m talking about the potential benefit of living through experiences we don’t like.  

But I do use the word “need” – however cautiously – because I think some of us, myself included, experience what we consider a genuine need to grow and evolve by any means necessary, even if that includes living through experiences we really don’t like and being on the receiving end of behaviors we consider deeply problematic.  

However, if we want to get away from the word “need,” I think it’s equally useful to say that experiences we don’t like can provide us with some very potent opportunities for learning and growth if we are open to them.  And remember – we’re allowing more than one thing to be true at once here.  We are NOT trying to convince ourselves that something that we didn’t like was actually for our benefit, and only allowing ourselves to look at the experience from that perspective.  We are not trying to deny our dislike of experiences that we consider worthy of our dislike.  And the word dislike may be a great understatement here.  We can consider experiences that we’ve had absolutely awful, AND we can still learn from them, and benefit from what we learn.

Here's the fifth thing that I suggest you consider believing on purpose if you want to forgive.  You may not be able to change the past, but you can make use of the power you have in the present and in the future.  Sometimes our inability or unwillingness to forgive comes down to two key focus errors.  One focus error is focusing more on the past than on the present and the future.  Sometimes we think that we’re going to get something beneficial out of focusing on what went wrong in the past.  I know sometimes people REALLY believe that this is true, and I’m sympathetic to that.  But when we place more of our focus on the past than on the present and the future, we are taking our time and energy away from creating solutions to our perceived problems.

The sixth thing relates to the second of the two focus errors I just mentioned, which is focusing more on other people’s power than on your power.  When we focus on what other people did to us, we are taking our focus away from what we could do in response.  It is a fact that other people do things.  And in this wild and crazy and wonderful world we live in, as long as we have preferences, there are going to be times when other people do things that we don’t like.  For better or worse.  But so often, we let that become more of a problem than it needs to be by freaking out about what someone else has done wrong, and how bad their actions are, or whatever, instead of taking responsibility for our own response.  

When other people do things we don’t like, we have options.  So what I encourage you to believe on purpose is that when other people do things you don’t like, you have the power to decide to respond in ways that serve your highest good.  Sometimes when we’re stuck in anger and resentment, it’s because we believe that we don’t have the power to respond differently to things that happen in the world that we don’t like.  But we usually have a lot more power than we recognize to respond to things that are happening that we don’t like in ways that we feel good, or at least better about.  So focus on the power you have to respond to the things you don’t like in the world.

And that goes for your own behavior, too.  When you behave in ways you don’t like, you have the option of focusing on what you think you did wrong, and blaming yourself and feeling terrible – and you also have the option disliking what you did, AND simultaneously trusting that you’ve been doing the best you can, and then deciding what you want to do differently going forward.  

And that brings me to the seventh thing I suggest you do if you want to forgive.  Ask yourself how you want to move forward with your newfound wisdom.  When you focus on what you have the power to do NOW, in spite of or because of whatever happened that you didn’t like, you effectively find a way to exist in this wild and wonderful and crazy and not-crazy and perfectly imperfect world of ours.  When we deliberately decide how we’re going to keep on moving through life, we give ourselves the chance to live a life that is not defined by things we don’t like, or what we think went wrong.  Living primarily in relation to problems usually doesn’t feel very good.  And we don’t have to deny our dislikes in order to live a life that’s oriented primarily towards all the good we see in the world, and in other people, and in ourselves.

So to recap: if you want to forgive, meaning, if you want to free yourself from anger and resentment in relation to a perceived slight or flaw or mistake or error, you have to navigate the tension between honoring the legitimacy of your own likes and dislikes about all the things that happen in this crazy world of ours, without becoming so attached to the rightness of your perspectives that you remain permanently embittered.  To forgive, we have to be able to honor our dislikes without equating our dislikes with the absolute laws of the universe.  To forgive, it’s really helpful to allow for the possibility that even if we really don’t like something that’s happened, it isn’t necessarily an indication that something has gone fundamentally wrong in the cosmic scheme of things.  We can trust that we’re all doing the best we can, and that’s really all we can do.  And we can commit to moving forward in the ways we believe to be best, given everything we’ve learned from our experiences.

Finally, I want to briefly mention that forgiving doesn’t have to lead to any particular outcomes, or come with any stipulations.  Sometimes people think that if they forgive someone, they’ll have to maintain a particular kind of relationship with that person, or continue to do certain things for that person.  No way, man!  As Marianne Wilson says, “forgiving someone does not mean you have to have lunch with them.”  You can forgive someone and choose to have nothing more to do with them.  Sometimes people who have been cheated on say to me, “Well I don’t want to forgive my partner because then I’d have to stay with them,” but that’s not how it works.  You don’t have to do anything!  And sometimes people who are cheating say, “Well, if I weren’t so angry with my partner for that thing they did way back when, I might not be cheating, and I might be really happy with them, but I don’t want to forgive them, because if I did, then I might have to stay married.”  Again, that’s not how it works.  You don’t HAVE to do anything!  There aren’t any rules here about what has to happen or what automatically will happen if you forgive someone.  Moreover, we’re usually in a much better position to think clearly about what we want to do about our relationships AFTER we have forgiven someone – that is, after we’ve made our way through our anger and resentment, or a good portion of it anyway.  

I’ve purposefully kept my remarks pretty general today, instead of talking about specifics of how forgiveness can happen – or not happen, as the case may be - in relation to infidelity situations.  But I’d be more than happy to help you work on forgiving yourself or forgiving someone else in the context of your infidelity situation.  Forgiving can be the most liberating thing in the world.  But when we attempt to convince ourselves to do it in ways that don’t honor the legitimacy of our preferences, we can end up feeling even more angry and resentful than we did in the first place.  So let me help you stay out of that trap, or find your way out of it if you’re already there.  When you’re ready to work with me, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I can’t wait to meet you.

Thank you all for listening!  Have a great week.  Bye for now.


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