Forgiving Yourself

Transcend your anger at yourself with love and view yourself with empathy.

Posted Apr 15, 2017

Self-forgiveness is a morally complex issue.  There are examples of human cruelty (such as dictators who find pleasure in torturing innocent victims) for which it would be ethically impossible to promote a path of self-forgiveness.  Generally, self-forgiveness should be directed toward good, decent people who have the ability to feel empathy. When they hurt others, they feel guilt and shame.

Valerie is a single mom raising two children, Samantha and Lauren.  Valerie’s 65-year-old mother also lives with them.  Valerie has been having trouble with her new supervisor who “nit-picks” about everything she does.  Today, Valerie had an especially difficult time at work.  She wanted to leave a little early to see Samantha play in a basketball game, but she had to stay at work to re-type some documents.  When she left, she got caught up in traffic; she not only missed Samantha’s game, but Samantha was waiting outside the gym for her.  On the drive home, Samantha didn’t say a word until they reached the driveway when Samantha stormed out of the car and said that Valerie doesn’t try hard enough to care about her. 

When Valerie entered the house, she saw Lauren roughhousing with their dog who knocked over a vase and broke it.  Valerie was upset and instead of saying anything, she decided to go upstairs and change her clothes.  Once she came downstairs, Valerie’s mother told her that she forgot to mail the check for the property taxes and that Valerie now owes a penalty for late payment. 

At that point, Valerie couldn’t take it anymore.  She blew up and said some very harsh and critical words to her mother and children causing them to cry.  Soon afterward, she felt terrible and apologized to all of them explaining that she had a hard day.  Although they accepted her apology, Valerie still didn’t feel okay about what she said and its impact on her family.  She continued to feel bad about that day for a long time, thinking that she must be an awful person to hurt the people she loves.

Chronically engaging in self-recriminations (i.e., beating yourself up over and over for what you said or what you did) is being unforgiving toward yourself.  Not forgiving others is harmful, but so is not forgiving oneself.  When you don’t forgive others it becomes a breeding ground for resentment and anger.  When you don’t forgive yourself, it deepens shame and guilt, and becomes a breeding ground for pathological self-blame. 

All of us make mistakes.  Some transgressions are common where you have feelings of regret; such as, attending to your career and missing many of you child’s sporting events, or not spending time with an elderly parent when you could have and now they are gone, or looking the other way when a co-worker was being bullied at work.  Other transgressions may be less common; such as committing acts of physical harm to others or to yourself.

Unforgiveness leads to festering of negative emotions and suppressing one’s psychological and spiritual growth.  Sometimes, the transgression is directed at the person out of anger, as in Valerie’s case.  In these instances, the journey of self-forgiveness involves having to forgive the other person. 

But when it comes to self-forgiveness, it is not enough to say you forgive yourself. Genuine self-forgiveness is a process.  It often involves making amends in whatever way possible (through acts that undo harm, or through practicing kindness to others, or through engaging in forgiveness when others transgress against you).  It involves a move away from obsessive rumination and self-incrimination about the situation that promoted the transgression.  It means cultivating empathy for oneself. 

Genuine self-forgiveness is different from shallow self-forgiveness.  In the forgiveness literature, shallow forgiveness of another is characterized by a “knee-jerk” forgiveness (that may reflect fear of the aggressor, or low self-esteem, or something that is prompted by an external stimulus [one’s family or social etiquette]).  Similarly, shallow self-forgiveness may share these characteristics.  It may not be genuine if there are still feelings of anger at the one who transgressed.  It would also be false to forgive yourself without taking responsibility for your part in the transgression.  It is more than just saying you forgive yourself.  It requires moral introspection and self-examination.  Lying to yourself or trying to justify your actions will only lead to rationalization and false self-forgiveness.

Forgiving oneself does not mean that the pain of the actions will go away forever.  It may (and frequently does) come back.  Nor, does it mean that you will reset to where you were before you committed the transgression.  But through self-forgiveness there is psychological and, perhaps even more profoundly, spiritual growth.  In the forgiveness literature, the process of forgiving is often characterized as that of the re-establishment of relationships: with others, with self, and with that which is sacred or divine, or a part of meaning in a larger context.  Interestingly, the emotion that forgiveness involves is love.  Self-forgiveness means transcending your anger at yourself with love, with viewing yourself with empathy. 

References

Hall, J. H. & Fincham, F. D. (2005). Self-forgiveness: the step-child of forgiveness research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 621-637.

McCullough, M. E.,Worthington, E. L., & Rachal, K. C.(1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 321–336.

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