Don’t be too quick or too slow to forgive

We’re told that it’s compassionate to forgive ourselves and other people.

It’s a great principle, sorely lacking in detail.

When, for example, is the time to forgive? And how do we do it?

By rushing to forgive we risk pushing legitimate feelings underground. On the other hand refusing to forgive is a lost opportunity for deeper connection and means that we carry unnecessary pain.

People react along the continuum of fast to slow depending on who they are and the situation, some things have a greater impact than others.

But at the extremes are:

  • Those who never forgive.
  • Those who forgive instantaneously.

They are both problematic in my view.

Never forgiving 

Never forgiving yourself 

On the surface never forgiving yourself may look like humility but it’s arrogance.

It’s the belief that unlike the rest of the human race you were meant to get through life without mistakes.

You may not intentionally put yourself above others but you are holding yourself to a standard that cannot be met – perfection.

‘I expect more of myself,’ we say. That’s fine – make sure you prove that next time round and set standards that are achievable.

Also remember that making mistakes is how we learn. Don’t set yourself apart from humanity.

Never forgiving others 

Refusing to forgive others is superiority, disguised as values.

We may not do it deliberately but refusing to forgive sends the message that imperfection, which we know is inevitable, will not be tolerated.

Who can live up to it?

In our minds – we can.

‘I would never do that,’ we say and it’s probably true with respect to the particular issue we are thinking of. But you can bet you will do something, somewhere, someday that hurts someone else.

To help us get past this we must remember that forgiving someone does not mean what s/he did was okay.

Behaviour can be wrong.

We are not exonerating the person but saying that we are prepared to let go of the anger their actions caused in us.

But beware if you pull someone up or say you won’t put up with bad behaviour and they tell you to be kinder and more forgiving. That’s taking advantage.

habit is not the same thing as a mistake.

We all mess up. People who are deliberately underhand, use others or perpetually misbehave are not nice. Don’t spend time with them.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to put up with bad behaviour. By all means forgive a friend or colleague who harms you but if it’s serious or ongoing, look in a new direction.

There are occasions where it may feel impossible to forgive because what was done was too heinous. I understand. These are rarer.

Forgiving too quickly

Forgiving yourself too quickly 

On the other hand we can skip over mistakes without stopping to reflect.

‘We’re all imperfect,’ we say, ‘me too,’ and off we go with barely a backward glance.

This may look as if we’re being kind to ourselves but it’s deeply unkind. It’s denial.

Humans aren’t great handling discomfort and do many things avoid anxiety.

It is hard to stay present through difficulties but the only way we get better is to stay present a little longer. We can’t do this by running away.

Mistakes are forgivable but we have to take the time to work out what we did wrong and more importantly, what strategies we’re going to implement to ensure we don’t do it again.

So you lashed out? We all can.

Think about –

  • Developing more emotional discipline
  • Cues that alert you a tantrum is coming
  • A single action you can take to break the pattern
  • Practicing the intervention.

There’s no point being sorry you missed a school event because of work if you plan just to do it again.

Instead –

  • Ask if you waste time? (Socialising is important but don’t get sucked into dramas.)
  • Determine your non-negotiable areas
  • Learn better delegation
  • Ask what you’re really avoiding by filling the calendar up, do you want to be the fun parent who does the circus but not the washing?

Try to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would you feel about you?

Don’t rush to forgive yourself without first identifying your faults how to fix them.

Forgiving others too quickly 

Leaping to ‘I forgive you’ is the same pattern in another shape.

We try avoid the distress that comes with working through the nitty gritty of a problem.

‘Let’s move on,’ may seem a welcome ‘out’ for everyone but the problem is that the deeper problem persists.

The pain we avoid in the moment comes back to haunt us. Often in a relationship it becomes the elephant in the room.

It’s damaging if we refuse to see what’s in front of us –

  • I forgive you for cheating (I don’t want to see what you’re really like)
  • You were doing the best you could (I don’t want to deal with the pain that you like being mean)
  • Work was busy, I understand (I don’t want to feel how hurt I am that everything else is more important than me).

The other consequence is that we don’t move on.

We say we have but we drag up the issue that hurt us again and again not because we can’t let go, it’s because we never acknowledged it.

Want to let it go? First see that it is there. Say that it is there.

Slow down forgiveness –

  • Identify the issue from your perspective
  • Ask someone how he or she sees it
  • Share how you were impacted
  • Ask how it impacted them
  • Talk through what could be done to manage it better in the future.

No one expects instant transformation, but a step forward is the right direction.


Forgiving ourselves and other people is important.

But moving too fast or too slow suggests something else besides forgiveness.

Recognising this is a truer form of compassion.

Dionne Lew
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