Self-Forgiveness: Three Controversies

Some people hesitate to self-forgive when they hear these objections to it.

Posted Jul 13, 2018

 Maryna Kriuchenko | Dreamstime
Source: Maryna Kriuchenko | Dreamstime

Many people with whom I talk tell me that self-forgiveness is vital to them.  In other words, they have breeched their own moral standard, have offended themselves, and now they need to move forward without the guilt.  Other people tell me that self-forgiveness is an illusion, that forgiveness needs to be directed outward toward other people who have offended.  Those who oppose the idea of self-forgiveness tell me that one can alleviate the guilt through confession of the wrongdoing and seeking forgiveness from those they have offended when their own moral standards have been breeched. 

Thus, we have a split in the decision of whether or not self-forgiveness is good or even appropriate.  I would like to go over three common criticisms of self-forgiveness to help you decide: Is self-forgiveness an appropriate response or an illusion to be avoided or even a danger to the self?  Let us take each of three in turn, starting with one of the most common objections.

KuanShu Deisgns
Source: KuanShu Deisgns

1. Self-forgiveness is impossible because the self-forgiver becomes both the judge and the defendant in deciding wrongdoing.  This is a logical impossibility because, in a court of law, one never takes both roles.  Thus, this knowledge renders self-forgiveness incoherent.  The false assumption here is that self-forgiveness is analogous to what happens in a court of law.  Yet, this is a false assumption.  Self-forgiveness is not in the context of jurisprudence, but instead is in the realm of interpersonal and intrapersonal connection.  It is in the realm of mercy, of welcoming, of reaching out, and not in the realm of rule-books and judicial sentences.  Thus, the objection is based on a false analogy.  Self-forgiveness remains as a viable action when a person needs some inner relief from broken moral standards.

2.  Self-forgiveness may not be logically impossible, but it is impractical because people do not have clear perspectives when they are emotionally hurting.  In other words, the self-forgiver lacks a sense of what needs to be done to make things right with the self and with others, who may have been offended by the actions.  I am not denying that it may be difficult for a person, in an objective sense, to ascertain the exact degree of wrong as well as the exact degree of emotional damage done to others and the self.  Yet, is this also not the case---the struggle to see clearly---when two people, who both may be internally hurting, decide how to resolve an issue of injustice between them?  Angry people, for example, may demand more than is reasonable.  People who are beaten down by others' aggressions may demand much less than what is reasonable.  Still, two people can discuss, discern, and eventually agree on fair compensation or a fair way to move forward.  Why not, then, grant this same imperfect process and solution for self-forgiveness?  The self-forgiver may be imperfect in the assessment of exact wrongdoing, but is this any different from two people making such a decision?  Even if you say "yes," then cannot the self-forgiver seek counsel from others with the question: Am I being too harsh with myself?  Am I letting myself off the hook?  It seems that with time, inner reflection, and discussion with trusted-others, a self-forgiver can see what the problem is, the depth of hurt toward the self and others, and the way out of this for both people.  Imperfection in this process does not invalidate self-forgiveness.

Ahidden | Dreamstime
Source: Ahidden | Dreamstime

3.  Because self-forgiveness is self-focused, it too easily can degenerate into narcissistic self-concern.  I agree that self-forgiveness, if done excessively, could degenerate into narcissism.  Yet, is this not the case with anything that involves the self?  For example, self-care is important, but what if a person spends 15 hours a day in self-grooming?  Attention to one's health is important, but what if a person becomes obsessed with health and spends 18 hours a day in taking food supplements, working out, and in general taking care of the self rather than working or interacting with others?  My point is this:  The examples are ones of a lack of temperance or balance.  The problem is not with self-care itself or attention to one's health itself.  Instead, the problem lies with overdoing it.  Is it not the same with self-forgiveness?  Some attention to self-forgiveness may be good as it reduces guilt and gives the self the important second-chance.  Yet, an excessive focus on self-forgiveness, the intemperate form, is what may induce narcissism.

Self-forgiveness?  So far, with the three objections above, offering forgiveness to the self still seems to be alive and well.  As one final point, self-forgiveness never should be an exclusive focus on the self but also a reaching out to those who also may have been harmed by the actions requiring self-forgiveness.