Ask Susan – Learning to Forgive Yourself



ask susan thanks

Q. Susan, I have made many mistakes in my life that I am unable to forgive myself for.  Leaving my first husband after 18 years, then leaving my second husband after 14 years and now I am in a new relationship with another man that I have been in for 6 years.  My children’s father is my first husband. 

My children are very angry with me for taking them on this roller coaster of my own journey.  They are grown now and often express their disappointment with my instability.  They wished I stayed with their father (as do I at this point).  However, I am where I am and I did what I did.

I wish I could turn back the clock, but I can’t.  I have to live with this.  My current boyfriend is a wonderful man who is very good to me.  He loves me, and though no one will ever take the place of my first husband, I do love this man.  I don’t know how to live my life without the pain that I hold on to and I just feel so bad about the effect that my actions have had on my children, my ex-husbands and my family as a whole.  My question is how do I get beyond the guilt and the sorrow?


Susan’s Response:

My first impression is that you are not yet willing to forgive yourself not that you cannot do so.  There is a distinct difference.  Is there really anyone benefiting from you not forgiving yourself?  I suspect not.  Keeping hurt and sorrow alive is not going to help your children, the ex’s or you.  What is it that you think you gain by feeling guilty?  There is not actually any need to do this to yourself.  It is self-abusing to continue with this and you do not deserve to abuse yourself let alone continue it for all these years.  No one deserves to punish themselves this way. Did you get some kind of physical punishment when a child if you ‘did wrong’?  That may be why you think you need to punish yourself now.  It is faulty learning.

There was undoubtedly a reason why you left the first husband.  Have you actually explained (even in writing if they won’t listen properly) fully to your children?  Have you protected them from your reasons?  If you had been totally happy you would not have left.

That must also be true of the second marriage.  What was making you so unhappy?  Who have you ever talked to about these feelings?  Writing a journal of your feelings and getting them all out on paper will help and counselling can also help sort out these feelings.  From what you have said it looks like you are stuck in grief.  Grief is in simplistic terms:  feelings of unreality, sadness, anger and acceptance.  People do not go through grief in a linear progression – you do a bit of sadness and a bit of anger and then ….  What have you done to let go of your grief?  Sometimes people subconsciously believe that if they make themselves out as a bad person and guilty of hurting the other person they can somehow continue the relationship instead of fully letting go.  Is that what you have been doing?  If so, carry out a funeral service for that marriage and the hopes and expectations you had when you got married.  You may well need to do so for both marriages separately.

You will know if you read my other writing I am keen on people forgiving themselves for not being the way they wanted themselves to be in any given situation.  One of the other ways of resolving this situation for yourself is to write a therapy letter – THAT YOU DO NOT SEND OR GIVE TO ANYONE ELSE.  This is a process similar in effect to the Gestalt technique of talking to an empty chair (which also works).  The formula for my therapy letters is :

Dear person x

This is what I appreciated about you.

This is what you did to me or did not do for me.

This is how I felt about it at the time.

This is how it has affected me.

This is what I want from you now (even something that you cannot possibly have – just express it)

I would further suggest that not only do you write these letters to your ex-husbands but also to each of your children as there would naturally be pain and anger within you that they have been so hard on you about the splits.  They may have grown up yet may not have resolved their own emotional issues around their parentage and that is THEIR responsibility as long as you have been honest with them.

Therapy letters can bring up a lot of emotions so you need to do them when you have time and space to be upset and cry a lot or punch a pillow to get the anger up and out if you have not already done so.  MY CAUTION IS DO NOT SEND OR GIVE THESE LETTERS TO ANYONE.  IT CAN BE VERY TEMPTING TO DO SO BUT YOU NEED TO WRITE THESE LETTERS FOR YOUR OWN HEALING NOT TO ‘DUMP’ ON ANYONE ELSE.

I am concerned that you use the word “instability”.  Is that a putdown that has been thrown at you by the children?  Deciding to end a relationship is not the same as being unstable.  Reject this unless you have actually had some kind of proper diagnosis as having a mental disorder.  Then think it through even if so.

Are you telling me that you are willing to stop yourself fully enjoying the love of your current man?  How does that benefit anyone?  Since your man loves you there must be something good about you!  Have you done it for yourself or asked him to give you a list of what is likeable/loveable about you?  Why not see what he would say?  Is your self esteem so low that you would not be able or willing to accept his good thoughts?  If so, counselling is a must. Try to find a woman who is an experienced Clinical Psychologist as you need to do more in-depth work than can be addressed in a Question and Answer column.  Best wishes.


Links to Susan Jane Smith’s publications:


We are women inspiring women! Join us!