How Do I Forgive Myself for Hurting Someone?

Photo taken in a Chicago bathroom.

How Do I Forgive Myself for Hurting Someone?

Discussion date: Thu, Sep 02, 2021 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Silver Spring, Maryland, Community Online on Thursday Evening
September 2, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all Online on Friday Evening
September 3, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm

Dear Still Water Friends,

When I was kid, I had a friend named Amanda. One summer, probably when we were 7 or 8, another kid in our daycare class started bullying her and I joined in. We teased her relentlessly by doing things like making fun of her for being overweight and dumping the contents of her bag all over the floor when she was out of the room. One day, after all of the other kids had gone home, I went back to treating Amanda kindly. She stopped what she was doing and said, “You’re being nice today. I like nice Jonathan.” I even remember her smile as she said it. The next day, when the others returned, I went back to teasing her.

The shame and regret I feel around these memories has surfacing a lot lately. It feels like there’s ghost looking over my shoulder, pulling me back to what I did. Remembering the way I treated Amanda is really painful.
In his book Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices, Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) writes about how when we harm others, we also harm ourselves, and the pain lingers for a long time:

The wound is not only in the body, in the soul, in the consciousness of the other person, but the wound is there in ourselves. Suppose we said something unkind to our grandmother fifty years ago. The pain, the suffering is still there in our consciousness, in our soul. I know that my grandmother is alive in me with her wound. I am alive also with that same kind of wound. I know that I’m living with the wounds of my past unkindness, and I want to tend to them — to clean them out, let them heal, and move on. I want to stop carrying the heavy weight of the past. How do I do that?

For a while, I thought the thing to do was to look Amanda up, ask if she’d be willing to talk, and make amends by acknowledging what I did and asking how I can make it right. But in preparing to do that– both drafting out what I might say and working up the nerve to actually contact her — I realized that there’s another step I need to take first: forgiving myself.

In another part of Happiness, Thay says that righting our wrongs begins inside of us. He also says that by healing ourselves, we begin the act of healing the other person:

When you are aware of a wound, begin to breathe in and out and begin to be aware of the wound. For example: Breathing in, I am aware of the wound in me; breathing out, I am taking good care of it. Breathing in, I say “I’m sorry, Grandma”; breathing out, “I know I will not do it again.”

Peace begins with me. Reconciliation begins with me. Healing begins with me. So when you practice deep breathing and smiling to the pain in you, and vow to begin anew, when you practice loving kindness, taking care of your pain and suffering, you are already practicing taking care of the other person. Taking care of yourself is to take care of the other person.

For example, suppose you write a letter of reconciliation after ten years of separation from someone. If your letter is sincere, you will begin to feel much better right away, just during the time of writing. You haven’t yet put the letter into the envelope, you haven’t put the stamp on, you haven’t sent it to the post office, the other person has not yet received it, but you feel very good right now, you have reconciled already with yourself, and your health begins to improve right away. That person would need three or five days to receive the letter and telephone you to thank you, but that is only one of the effects, not the only one.

For me, the most helpful part of Thay’s words here is the part about becoming aware of my wound; contemplating his words, I think about looking deeply and how that ultimately yields the compassion needed to forgive myself.

As I’ve reflected on the way I treated Amanda, I’ve realized that the summer I turned on her was right around the time when my parents were divorcing. The tumultuous situation at home had me feeling unsure of my own self-worth and starving for order in my life. Being a bully was an attempt to feel better about feel better and give myself a sense of control and power.

What I did wasn’t right, but in understanding its roots I feel more compassion toward the child that I was: if I didn’t have what I needed to do better, how is it fair to continue to hold what I did against myself? Unless I relieve myself of the burden of believing that I was fundamentally evil, I’ll never be able to fully understand what I did wrong. And If I can’t do that, I can’t move forward.

Beyond just making myself feel better, offering myself forgiveness has a very practical aspect that I imagine Amanda would appreciate: it removes the root causes of my harmful actions. Forgiveness is an act of allowing myself to feel loved, and when I feel that love I’m much less likely to go around making misguided attempts at proving myself worthy.

I think this is the kind of peace, reconciliation, and healing that Thay says begins with ourselves.

During this Thursday and Friday’s Dharma sharing, I’d be very grateful to hear your thoughts on the following questions:

  • What has your experience with self-forgiveness been like? In what ways was doing so challenging?
  • Has forgiving yourself affected your relationship with the being that you hurt?
  • Do you think we need to forgive ourselves before we can ask for forgiveness from others?

I look forward to being with you.


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Sep 02, 2021


Sat, February 10

No events scheduled for today!