The Real Reason You Have Such High Standards For Other People
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist, Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology. She has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut, and over 25 years of experience providing psychotherapy, consultation, and supervision to medical and mental health professionals in addressing relationship and major life issues with a specialty in complex trauma and dissociative disorders.
Do you ever feel like you find it particularly hard to forgive others for making mistakes? Or have you had the experience of being hurt or wronged by someone and just couldn't get past it? Chances are, there's a good reason you've gotten stuck, and it may not be what you think.
First of all, it's important to understand that your ability to forgive someone often has little to do with that person or what they did. Merriam-Webster defines forgiveness as "to cease to feel resentment against an offender" or "to give up resentment of or claim to requital." It's an internal state of being, and it's not dependent on anyone but you. The only person in control of your thoughts, feelings, and actions—and the only one who can make a shift occur—is you.
So if you want to understand why you struggle to forgive people, you need to start by looking within.
Where our high standards come from.
I've seen many models of forgiveness, and I bet you have too: The "forgive no one and hold a grudge forever" path; the "forgive everyone and never stand up for yourself" path; and most often, situations where we think we've forgiven someone but haven't really, and we re-experience distress and often resentment. But I never saw models on how to forgive myself.
I wasn't a perfectionist, but I had a loud, harsh internal critic. In my mind, I endlessly repeated the cringeworthy moments that made me wish the floor would swallow me up whole. My sense of self sprung from a deep well of not good enough, regardless of external achievements. I wanted to be liked. I tended to argue for being "right," and I held onto that like a life raft. Somehow, I missed the memo that always being right does not make people like you.
Treating others with compassion and acceptance starts with being able to treat yourself that way first. Shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown's research shows us there's a connection between the ability to accept help and the ability to show compassion to others. When we can't accept help or support from others because of our self-judgment (that we don't deserve help, or that accepting help in some way is "weak"), then we're creating a cognitive link between compassion and judgment. So, when we're in the position to show compassion to someone else, there's an underlying link of judgment. A thread that we don't even recognize. And this gets in the way of practicing forgiveness to others. If we can't unhook accepting help and judgment and can't practice self-compassion, then we can't get to forgiveness.
In other words, your inability to accept other people's mistakes and give them second chances stems from your own harsh judgments toward yourself. When you can't be compassionate and forgiving toward yourself, you hold other people up to the same standards, and you stay stuck. We need self-compassion before we're able to sustain being compassionate toward others.
Why not forgiving backfires.
Forgiveness is both a gift and an art—it's the balancing of an intricate dance that involves you, other people, your perception of yourself, and your perception of others, all woven together with explicit and implicit expectations.
When it comes to self-forgiveness, then, you're seeing yourself through two lenses—the lens of someone who has done something "wrong" and the lens of someone who has been hurt by an action.
The opposite of forgiveness is also complex—it's a mixture of anger, depression, and blame. But most of all, the opposite of forgiveness is stagnation. It's getting mired in an emotional place regarding a particular incident, and it prohibits future growth and discovery. And more importantly, forgiveness (or the lack of) has the greatest impact on only one person—you. There's a common saying: Not forgiving someone is like slowly poisoning yourself and secretly hoping the other person dies.
When we think about this in terms of self-forgiveness, we're both the perpetrator and the victim. From both perspectives, we're creating a situation in which we're causing harm to ourselves.
How to practice acceptance.
Want to not be so quick to judge other people? Start with taking time to recognize the ways in which you judge yourself. For example, when we're focused on what we've done "wrong," we're facing the past (which we can't affect anymore today). When we're focused on what "might" happen, we are facing the future (which we can't affect because it hasn't happened yet). Instead, I'd invite you to stay in the present. Work on catching yourself when you find yourself sucked into a spiral of self-denigration or worry. As we stay in the present, we can learn from the situation.
Here are the practical steps you can use to move into forgiveness in the moment:
H: honestly acknowledge your pain
E: embrace the decision to move forward
A: accept the situation and yourself with compassion
L: let go of judgment
Taking a few deep breaths and beginning to practice an attitude of kindness to ourselves also allows us to connect with others and frees up our thinking and emotions. We can integrate what we learn while practicing self-compassion into our interactions with others going forward and use our best decision-making process to avoid racking up grievances, grudges, and judgments toward others that serve no one.
Consider this: A person's worth is not attached to outcome. It's not something you have to earn or to prove. Solely by being a human, we are worthy of love, care, and compassion—from ourselves and from others, toward ourselves and toward others. We are all human. We are all imperfect. We are all worthy.