Forgiving Ourselves – An Unlikely Lesson from a Three Year Old

The other day my daughter and I were playing, and she got really excited and started hugging my leg. And then she bit me. Hard…because she was happy. I know that doesn’t really make sense, but 3 year olds don’t often make sense. It didn’t take much to let her to know that she had crossed the line between playful and hurtful (a loud “OW!” sufficed), and in her shame, she started to cry. I told her I wasn’t mad and that I knew she didn’t mean to hurt me, that she just got excited, but that just made her cry more. When she knows she did something wrong, she runs and hides, so after a while of trying to make her feel better, we just decided to let her emotions run their course. It turned out to be pretty funny actually, because while we were calmly doing other things around the house, we could hear her howling from her room like the world was coming an end.

This went on for a good 10 minutes or so before she emerged, grinning from ear to ear like we just told her she was going to Disneyland or something. I thought my moodswings as a 16 year old were bad. Three year old moodswings are borderline bipolar.

Anyhow that got me thinking about forgiveness. Even though I had forgiven here almost immediately after she bit me, it took her an extra 10 minutes before she finally let go of what she had done wrong. I thought to myself, “What if we all just sat and howled like a three year old for as long as it took to forgive ourselves for the things we regret?” Not only would that be hilarious, but nothing would get done.

My daughter missed out on ten minutes of her life that she could’ve spent doing more pleasant things. Instead she chose to sit and cry. Ok. So we’re all grown ups and we’ve learned how to hide those feelings deep so we can still function during the day, but that doesn’t mean our regrets aren’t holding us back. How much of our lives are we missing out on because we metaphorically sit out and cry over past wrongs we committed that we can’t change?

Chances are, the people we’ve hurt have forgiven us – especially if they love us, but we often insist on paying for it, making our own lives miserable by not forgiving ourselves. Rather than learning from our past mistakes and moving forward, we shackle ourselves to an unrealistic expectation of perfection and are then surprised and disappointed when we don’t make the grade.

Instead of holding ourselves to an unrealistically high standard, let’s treat ourselves with kindness and generosity, acknowledging our faults righting our wrongs as much as possible, and then moving on, allowing ourselves to live a full and happy life, knowing and accepting that we are mostly good people that sometimes make mistakes.


  1. Interesting because I actually took a polar opposite reaction from what you described. What if, instead of blaming others for our own actions or making excuses like “I didn’t mean to” … what if we all accepted that we hurt someone else, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and cried over it for a little bit? What if we accepted that even if we didn’t mean to, we hurt someone and properly grieved over it?
    Then maybe we could all come away feeling better, with less anger, less resentment, and more understanding.

    I don’t see that as “holding ourselves to an unrealistically high standard”. I see that as accepting that even unintentionally, it’s possible to hurt someone else and there’s some catharsis to allowing yourself to admit it, feel bad about it, and then move on.

    1. Great points Kara. I couldn’t agree with you more. I think we just have different ways of saying the same thing (or maybe I just worded things funny – definitely possible :). Knowing and accepting that we’re not perfect means knowing and accepting that we’re going to hurt people. We shouldn’t walk through life thinking that we’ve got it all figured out – so I think we agree there.
      I definitely think it’s ok to feel bad for what we do wrong and that we should TOTALLY own it – easier said than done for sure. If we had no guilt or remorse we would be psychopaths. I guess in my situation with my daughter, I was more focused on the amount of time that she spent crying hysterically. It was for a REALLY long time relative to what she had done, and that’s what my husband and I were sort of chuckling over. It just reminded me that even if some past offense might be waaaay in the past, we are sometimes metaphorically still sitting in our rooms crying over it. My hope is that we can forgive ourselves for those things that still haunt us…

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I learn lessons from my 3 yr old all the time, haha! Their honesty and innocence and how raw and unfiltered their emotions are. When I read that she needed 10 min to forgive herself, I almost agree with her instead of just moving-on right away. At her age, and at any age, sometimes we need time alone to process life. Even though someone has extended forgiveness to us right away, we should still take time to process how we might have hurt that person. If we accept that forgiveness right away, that’s good, no harboring guilt. But we also need to know that someone’s forgiveness is a gift to us, not to take lightly.

    1. Good point. I think that’s also what Kara was saying but I missed it. Now that you brought that up, I think it’s really cool that she retreated, took time for herself and when she was ready, emerged happy and smiling. Another great lesson. Love that!

  3. For some reason this post brought to mind a quote from David Foster Wallace:
    “You’ll worry less about what people think about you when you realize how seldom they do.”

    I think it was the part about “moving on”. Reminds me of an episode of “Happy Days” where a guy from high school shows up to “settle things once and for all” with Fonzie, because he thinks they have this long-standing grudge – but Fonzie doesn’t even remember him. 🙂

    We definitely hold onto a lot of things longer than we should.

    Great reminder. 🙂 Thanks Joelle!

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