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How to Forgive Yourself

Many roads to contentment begin with self-forgiveness. It is among the most difficult—and most important—steps one can take.

Audra Melton, used with permission.
Ebony English, recovery advocate, 36, Columbia, South Carolina. After spending more than a decade in intoxicated oblivion, Ebony English wants to help others overcome their own addictive behaviors. She has had a rough time, so she can relate to the pain others feel. English has forgiven herself for believing that the physical and emotional absence of her parents was her fault, as well as for thinking that she was never good enough. Since the moment she woke up hungover and found her then 7-year-old son standing in her vomit, she had vowed to change, but first, she needed to forgive herself. She told herself that she was worthy of true healing and love, and she has not looked back.
Audra Melton, used with permission.

The Person You Can’t Part With

Make amends with yourself and get on with life.

By Matt James, Ph.D.

Many of us know that forgiveness is a good thing. It frees us from bitterness and anger, two difficult emotions that can disrupt our physical health and hold us back. Often we’re consistent about forgiving others, but forgiving ourselves is more difficult. Understanding why self-forgiveness is hard can make it easier to practice.

  1. We tend to think of ourselves on a continuum—we begin with the past, move briefly through the present, and head toward the future. Letting go of the past—or the past we have created in our minds—can feel shaky and tenuous, like a boat that has slipped its mooring. When we try to forgive ourselves, we’re trying to release something that feels as if it’s part of us. We’re releasing who we were at that moment. Of course, it feels easier to forgive someone else; we’re releasing a part of the past that doesn’t define us, unless we’ve told the story so frequently that we’ve built our identity around that narrative. In that case, it becomes hard to forgive the other person because the transgression and our reaction have become central to our identity.
    To release that part of your past, remember that we’re all doing the best we can at any given moment. If we had known that the action would cause pain to others or ourselves, we wouldn’t have done it. And even if we knew that we were causing damage at the time, we had no idea how much we would regret it in the future. Retain the lesson from the event but release all else.
  2. We register what we’ve done “wrong” mentally and physically. An injury to someone else might be accompanied by guilt, and such a mistake often brings sadness. If we try to forgive ourselves for a wrong without releasing that underlying emotion, the forgiveness doesn’t “take.” No matter how hard we try to forgive, we continue to beat ourselves up because our nervous system tells us to. We connect our regret to limiting beliefs such as: “I’m always saying the wrong things.” Instead, identify that limiting belief or negative emotion. When we release it, we find that forgiving ourselves is not that difficult.
  3. Seeing ourselves as flawed can feel vulnerable, even scary. We’re wired to survive, but those who make too many mistakes tend to get ousted from the gene pool. Even our education system tells us that anything that is not “right” is “bad” and deserves some form of punishment. We avoid making mistakes, but when we do make a misstep, the first impulse is to hide it. To forgive ourselves, we first have to admit that we blew it. We have to take ownership and acknowledge the slipup, which counters our sense of survival. Mistakes, failures, and stupid choices are part of being human. It’s how we learn and grow. If we’re never embarrassed or wrong and if we never make a mistake, we’re probably staying within a narrow comfort zone. Appreciate the misstep for what it is, a stepping stone on the path forward.
  4. It’s easier to forgive a person whom we really love. If our trusting, loving friend or significant other does something that hurts, we are likely to see that transgression as a one-time event. We refer back to the goodness and the love in them. Many of us, however, don’t have loving, trusting relationships with ourselves. We are much more critical of ourselves than we are of others. We’ll give other people the benefit of the doubt but won’t cut ourselves any such slack. When we’re dealing with a person we don’t trust or like, most often we can choose to forgive, release the hurt, and simply avoid contact with that person. With ourselves, that’s not an option. We cannot quit, divorce, or walk away. Loving and appreciating the self is key.

Matt James, Ph.D., is the author of The Foundation of Huna: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Times.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Rich Gustafson, financial advisor, 56, Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey. Rich Gustafson’s parents were drug users, which contributed to their early deaths: His mother died at age 34 and his dad at 43. Neglected, he and his four siblings essentially had to raise themselves for a few years when he was a tween; later, the orphaned siblings lived with three separate families. The neglect and loss filled him with negative emotions. It was a destructiveness that boiled over into love and relationships, an anger that harmed others and himself. He admits to verbally abusing past partners—and to later condemning himself for that type of behavior. Perhaps to help process his pain, he recently wrote, produced, and performed in a one-man play, Life’s Rich Pageant. For Gustafson, sharing his past trauma has helped him overcome the sense of lifelong hurt.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

Are You Deceiving Yourself?

How to break old patterns of self-denigration.

By Peg O’Connor, Ph.D.

Some people “forgive” themselves too easily and quickly. When they feel the tooth of remorse or the pang of regret, they let themselves off the hook. Denying their responsibility, minimizing their role, shifting blame, and engaging in revisionist history are some of the characteristic moves of the speedy self-forgiver. This is not genuine self-forgiveness because there’s little self-reflection about how their actions have harmed others or themselves. Nor is there much reflection about how these experiences and their responses to them might make them better people. There’s no effort to repair the damage. These people seem more concerned with removing negative emotions by wiping the slate clean. They treat themselves and their actions like an Etch-A-Sketch. Give a good shake and all the troubling experiences and negative emotions just disappear.

Genuine self-forgiveness can help restore your sense that you have moral worth and dignity, even if you have made significant mistakes and caused great harm to others or to yourself. It all comes down to what you are willing to do. You must acknowledge what you’ve done, repair it as best you can, and, as circumstances allow, commit to doing better. The bitter irony is that the people who perhaps most need and deserve to forgive themselves cannot. The necessary reflection and acknowledgment can be difficult because some people are burdened by forms of self-deception, which makes it difficult to identify when self-forgiveness is appropriate. Some of these forms of self-deception include:

Exceptionalism: You hold yourself accountable or blameworthy in ways that you would never hold others. You maintain a standard for yourself that is far higher than the one you use for others. This is a cousin to perfectionism. You expect yourself to be perfect, and anything less than that is abject failure. You believe you control the outcomes of your actions. If those actions go awry, you can only assume it is your fault.

Expansionism: You expand the realm of your responsibility to just about everything. You significantly overestimate your zone of responsibility, thereby assuming responsibility for acts or situations that are not yours. If you see yourself as responsible for everything, you will always encounter your failures and mistakes.

Confirmation bias: You operate with the assumption that someone like you (insert all negative judgments here) can only bring about harm or injury to others. Every act confirms your inadequacy or culpability, which exacerbates shame. You believe everything you do and everything about you is bad or wrong or hurtful, and this reinforces your view that someone like you doesn’t deserve forgiveness.

These forms of self-deception are difficult to identify and interrupt because they are so familiar. More accurately, they are normal to those who operate under them; they mediate how people see themselves and others. This has real consequences. Consider Tina. If Tina believes everything bad that happens in a relationship is her fault, her partner may reinforce that belief along with the belief that he has no responsibility for what happens. Tina takes his blame and directs it at herself. This may make a relationship go from bad to toxic to dangerous.

Let’s imagine Tina finally leaves her partner after many years. She feels as if she has really let herself down for staying as long as she did. She’s wasted too many years with someone who didn’t make her a better person and also tore her down. Why is self-forgiveness appropriate, and what might it look like for her? Self-forgiveness is appropriate because it is a way to restore dignity, which is often damaged in harmful relationships. Self-forgiveness is a step in rebuilding—if not building for the first time—the sense that a person matters.

What might the acknowledgment, repair, and commitment that are crucial for self-forgiveness look like for Tina? She needs to acknowledge the history of the relationship and what patterns developed anew or continued from past relationships. She needs to acknowledge her feelings and reasons for staying, along with her reasons for leaving. She needs to acknowledge what was beyond her control and what her partner’s responsibilities were.

The repair work takes several forms. To repair is to restore, rejuvenate, heal, and redeem one’s self. One important step is to reframe. Tina may have a tape running through her head that she did this to herself; she chose to stay. She sees her harm as self-inflicted. If she reframed particular decisions, she might reframe the broader picture. For example, she might come to see that she had very few options—each of them bad.

While rocks and hard places are both options, neither is a good one. She could reframe her actions in light of those choices and realize she did the best she could in a difficult situation. In fact, she might see she was rather clever in coming up with third options in many situations. This could help Tina to see herself as having more worth than she thought she had, which can be a huge achievement in healing and redeeming her sense of worth.

The commitment to a better present and future self builds off acknowledgment and repair work. The commitment to being a better person in the future must involve the commitment to treating yourself better by valuing and respecting yourself. It is a commitment to break old patterns of self-deprecation and denigration that aid and abet self-deception. When Tina does this, she is less likely to tolerate others who are trying to define her value and worth for her.

Self-forgiveness does not happen quickly and easily. It can be scary, but it can also be uplifting and liberating.

Peg O’Connor, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and gender, women, and sexuality studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

Audra Melton, used with permission.
John-Manuel Andriote, 63, health journalist, Atlanta After reporting on the AIDS epidemic for decades, journalist John-Manuel Andriote was shocked to learn of his own HIV-positive diagnosis. He wrote an HIV coming-out story for The Washington Post and was chastised by others, even on national television, for not knowing better. Privately, he engaged in his own personal flogging, but he knew he had to forgive himself. On that road to self-forgiveness, he learned what it means to be human. “Forgiving myself was about learning to be compassionate toward myself—practicing a virtue I try hard to show others.”
Audra Melton, used with permission.

Anatomy of an Over-Apology

Stop it! It’s not your fault or your problem.

By Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

How many times do you find yourself saying “I’m sorry” for something that is not at all your fault? Perhaps you saw your partner leaving the house wearing shoes intended for indoor wear. An hour later, you receive a distressed call from him; he has fallen on the icy sidewalk, resulting in a twisted ankle. You blame yourself for not having prevented him from changing shoes and apologize profusely.

Perhaps a friend complains about a hassle she is experiencing, and “I’m sorry” is your first response. It’s a natural enough expression, but what should you be sorry for? When you stop and think about it, you tend to say you’re sorry frequently, including for matters that have nothing to do with you. Similarly, how much personal responsibility do you take when someone else makes a mistake that, theoretically, you could have prevented?

Is your immediate expression of sorrow rational? You are in no way to blame for the outcome. On the other hand, you may honestly feel great empathy and can put yourself in the other person’s position, vividly imagining the situation.

Other People’s Woes, Not Yours

There is little research into this kind of apology. The literature instead focuses on self-criticism as a component of depression; the tendency to regard yourself as the cause of other people’s woes can place you at risk for chronic sadness. Similarly, researchers approach self-blame as a feature of the depressed person’s tendency to focus criticism inward. Studies about regret after bad behavior don’t apply to the over-apologizer; such research involves situations in which one person did harm to another.

To understand the mindset of the chronic apologizer, it can be helpful to turn to the topic of empathy, in which you have a tendency to feel bad when others do. Tara Reich of the London School of Economics and colleagues investigated what happens to observers when they are the unintended witness to a supervisor harshly treating an employee. Their research can help explain why some people’s tendency to see the world from other people’s eyes can trigger an empathy-
motivated apology.

If you can feel empathy toward a person who isn’t necessarily a victim, this suggests that you could express just as much sorrow for the yelling supervisor as for the employee. You can probably relate to this scenario if you’ve ever felt that the person doling out the criticism was entitled and right to do so.

The tendency to feel empathy can be strongly influenced by how well you can get inside that person’s mental state. In many ways, this ability is a strength and can make you a valued friend, romantic partner, employee, or family member. You will go out of your way not to hurt others because you can imagine exactly what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. As their state of mind becomes yours, it’s possible for your own levels of distress to escalate accordingly.

How to Regulate Your Apology

When you find yourself ready to apologize no matter what the situation, it seems worthwhile to consider ways you can scale back some of this perspective-taking. Take a hard look at what you, not they, are feeling and then decide whether you’ve gone too far down this path.

Apologizing is certainly a way to relate to others that can lead to greater harmony. Being able to pull back before you automatically engage your empathic concern can help you maintain the kind of perspective needed for your own emotional fulfillment.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a professor emerita at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, is the author of The Search for Fulfillment.

Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.
Jillian Amodio, 31, social work student, Annapolis. Jillian Amodio was consumed with guilt and self-hatred. She lost the infant years of her two children to postpartum depression. She sobbed when her babies were born. For her, postpartum was a vicious beast, with backbreaking mental and emotional anguish. The moment her firstborn arrived, her hopes and expectations turned into nothing more than wishful thinking. Amodio knew she was going to be a terrible mom, and she felt she would never be good enough. She could not climb out of her hole. Only years later did she realize that her depression made her feel self-loathing. She then learned to give herself the grace and compassion she deserved.
Moya Mc Allister, used with permission.

The Most Painful Emotion

What really happens when we hear, “Shame on you”?

By S. Rufus

Shame is a raging cold-sweat dread about things we deem vile, yet which we have done, said, thought, desired, been, or still are. Shame is a punch-your-forehead cocktail of emotions that simmers and swells inside of us and refuses to be talked away.

Shame is not bland embarrassment. Shame is not wishing we had ordered soup instead. Shame is not wide-eyed cringe emojis on a screen. Shame is the freefall-whiplash shock of believing that we have broken rules and caused harm. We are unacceptable and deserving of punishment.

This punishment might come from others or ourselves and might take its ultimate form: Feelings of shame increase the risk of suicide in some individuals.

Mainly, shame is fear of rejection, humiliation, unacceptability, of being bad in a good world.

Charles Darwin, for one, studied blushing. Noting that it was caused by states of “self-attention” under the real or imagined gaze of others, he decreed this cutaneous red flag “the most peculiar of all expressions,” which “makes the blusher suffer and the beholder uncomfortable, without being of the least service to either of them.”

Yet if blushing is evolutionary, so is shame. It has arguably shaped civilizations: Fear of burning in hell for theft lessens theft. Fear of being pinioned in stocks and pelted with spoiled fruit for public drunkenness reduces public drunkenness. But how much is enough? And who decides?

Ashamed, we isolate—thinking ourselves unqualified for comfort, clemency, or hugs. Too much is happening inside for us to carefully unbind the razor wire netting that is shame.

But unbind it we must, exploring one by one its toxic threads:

Regret. Ashamed, we wish things had gone differently—that we had shut up, spoken up, been smarter, slimmer, stronger, nicer, or just never born. Can I erase the summer of 2007? Or that text?

Guilt. Affecting different brain regions, guilt and shame are considered separate emotions: guilt as a sense of wrongdoing, shame as a sense of being bad—even in ways we can’t control, such as our height. But these two feelings intersect. Guilt causes shame and shame feeds guilt.

Self-loathing. Shame is almost synonymous with self-loathing—a crushing, wrenching sense of being unacceptable, unlovable, unfixable, and believing that others must agree. Being ashamed means being painfully embarrassed to exist.

Disgust. While shame is said to have evolved to maintain social hierarchies, disgust is believed to have evolved to help humans avoid disease. But disgust focused on oneself is shame, the kind that drives eating disorders and self-harm.

Fear. We fear exposure, accusation, punishment. Afraid that we cannot erase those deeds or thoughts or qualities that shame us, we exist on quicksand, dreading the one ticking time-bomb we cannot escape: ourselves.

Whenever shame strikes, let us try to stand fast in its blast and trace its source. In whose voices do we hear the words: “Shame on you”? Are they the voices of society or deities or individuals, real or imagined, or our own? Might those voices be bigoted, abusive, arbitrary, antiquated, cruel?

Might they not be voices at all but history, collective trauma shouting what we should and should not be?

S. Rufus is the author, under the byline Anneli Rufus, of several books, including Party of One and Stuck.

How Forgiving Are You?

Our degree of forgiveness varies depending on who hurt us and when the incident occurred.

By Robert Enright, Ph.D.

We are sometimes unfairly hurt by others, whether in family, friendship, school, work, or other contexts. Think of someone who has hurt you unfairly and deeply. For a few moments, visualize in your mind the events of that interaction. Answer this series of questions about your current attitude toward this person. Don’t rate past attitudes, only present ones.

Please rate each item on a 1-to-6 scale:
1 = Strongly Disagree
2 = Disagree
3 = Slightly Disagree
4 = Slightly Agree
5 = Agree
6 = Strongly Agree

For each item, rate the level of agreement on the above scale that best describes your current feeling. Fill in the blanks with each of the indicated words or phrases in turn before answering.

This first set of items deals with your current feelings or emotions toward the person.

1. I feel _____ toward him/her.

warm (1)
negative (2)
kindness (3)
dislike (4)
happy (5)
angry (6)

This set of items deals with your current behavior toward the person.

2. Regarding this person,

I do or would _____.
show friendship (7)
avoid (8)
aid him/her when in trouble (9)
ignore (10)
do a favor (11)
not speak to him/her (12)

This set of items deals with your current opinion of the person. Consider the thoughts that occupy your mind right now regarding this particular person.

3. I think the person is _____.

of good quality (13)
corrupt (14)
a good person (15)

4. Regarding this person, I _____.

disapprove of him/her(16)
wish him/her well (17)
condemn him/her (18)

Scoring: Add up your scores as you recorded them for the following items: 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 17.

Important: Now reverse score the remaining items. (If you gave a rating of 1, score it as a 6; if you rated an item as a 2, give it a 5; if you rated an item as a 3, then score it as a 4; and so on.) Add up your scores on all 18 items.

Your Total Score: If you scored between 18 and 40, you are low in forgiving this person at this time. This does not mean that you will not raise your score. If you so choose, you might consider engaging in the forgiveness process to rid yourself of resentment and possibly improve your relationship (if you have one with the person).

If you scored between 41 and 63, you are still somewhat low in forgiving but obviously are getting closer to a psychological state that is not as angry and therefore perhaps not as vulnerable. The midpoint of the scale is 63, so anything below this shows that you can improve your forgiveness response if you are motivated to enter the process.

If you scored between 64 and 86, you are showing forgiveness, at least to a degree. You may have a minimally wounded heart, in need of some forgiveness, but it is not imperative if you wish to be emotionally free from the effects of injustices toward you.

If you scored between 87 and 108, then you are already forgiving or well on your way to be even more forgiving toward that person. You likely do not need to go through the forgiveness process with this person.

Robert Enright, Ph.D., is a professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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