Margaret Wehrenberg Psy.D.

Depression Management Techniques


When Self-Compassion Requires Self-Forgiveness

Self compassion and forgiveness go hand-in-hand to eliminate harsh self labels.

Posted May 28, 2014

I recently heard snippets of an interview with the captain of the Exxon Valdiz, the tanker responsible for the environmentally devastating oil spill. The interviewer asked if he could forgive himself and he said he did not want to. He wanted to always remember what was possible. And my thought was how sad it was. I heard him saying he had to live with self-blame. And to me, that would feel awful. I thought "Certainly you could be cautious in the future without continuing the negative judgments of yourself..." Living with regret spoils pleasure in the moment and it prevents being mindful. Mindfulness keeps you in the present, not judging your past or worrying about your future, but there are times when you too may have challenges of self-forgiveness. You  might need to acknowledge your regret cannot undo the past. You might also being hanging on to regret like the captain of the Valdiz, in which case you will need to figure out if you are actively punishing yourself with your thoughts or perhaps using self-blame as a means of self-control. If those are your reasons, stop here and consult a therapist about how and why you are doing that! But, once you have begun a regular practice of developing self-compassion you might want to add in active forgiveness of yourself for past actions that you regret. Forgiveness always involves awareness of the impact of the harmful action or words on the other person. And feeling forgiven (or offering forgiveness to others) requires that you have genuine repentance for having done them along with the intention to not repeat the action. Then asking for forgiveness allows an other to offer it to you. The steps of getting forgiveness are: 1. I did these actions: __________________ (no excuses or defenses or even self-blaming. It is a statement of fact, acknowledging your actions/words.)2. This is how I think you were affected: _____________ (no judgements of whether the others "should have" reacted the way they did or "should have realized you did not mean it". In other words no blaming them either!3. Here is how I intend to not do that again: ______________4. Ask, "Will you forgive me?" Applying that to yourself may be a bit harder. Others may have forgiven you, forgotten that you did it, or maybe have written you off and you don't have contact with them. In any case, when you continue to beat yourself up over the past, it is time to let it go. It cannot be changed, but you can change your feelings and actions going forward. I have written a longer version of a self-compassion exercise, which you can find on my website at, but a short version of self-forgiveness goes like this:1. Write by hand (preferable over typing because you will have greater connection to the words) a description of what you did or said that you regret.2. Write the reasons why you did it: not with labels or judgments, but more with just simple explanations, such as "I did not have information at the time that would have changed my actions." "I was impulsive and did not pause to think through my words."3. Write down why it was a struggle for you to behave better. Again, short, simple phrases.4. Write why you could forgive a person you love if they had done such a thing. (It might be good to write it like a script: "John, I would forgive you because you are such a good person, and everyone can be short-tempered when they are under so much stress.)5. Now, substitute your own name into that script. If this is too hard, find someone you trust to talk about this with and ask if they could forgive you.6. Ask for forgiveness and offer to forgive yourself. Self-compassion and self-forgiveness go hand-in-hand as the antidote to negative labels. You can free yourself from the snare of those labels and when you do, you will feel freer to be your real self, less depressed and more loving toward others too.