After an Offense, What Is the Path for Self-Forgiveness?

Research suggests there is only one route to true self-forgiveness.

Posted Mar 28, 2018

The secret to success is to offend the greatest number of people.

—George Bernard Shaw

Don't be so serious! I'm just joking.

We all know someone who thrives on being provocative, walking the line between stimulating creativity and constructively challenging convention, who sometimes goes too far. We all know someone who takes pride in being offensive, passes it off as joking, trotting out the old saw of telling others they are too easily put-off. As if their way of relating to others were a public service, an exercise of socially-responsible free speech designed and delivered to serve as a beacon of the shining light of the truth. Honesty, they say, is the best policy, but being a callous bull in an emotional china shop ignores the need for tact and sensitivity.

At the same time, political correctness is suffocating, coercing us with social and cultural pressure into a form of frightened conformity. Being bludgeoned with moral condemnation and smug superiority is tiresome at best, and the common underlying hypocrisy is hard to stomach. For those who succumb, fears of crossing the line stifle healthy variability, creating a fragile bubble of safety which arguably leaves people too tender and reactive to handle much of what reality dishes out.

No easy answers.

These situations are truly confusing and often unresolved, appearing to have no clear or good solutions—do we walk around on eggshells all the time, making sure we never say or do anything which might upset anyone, do we shoot from the hip and let the cards fall where they will, do we spend all our waking hours imagining every possible scenario which might come up and think about the most optimal way to respond, do we practice diplomacy until we are able intuitively able to generate the right response for the situation, or what? These questions are ever more important, as our society clashes on multiple levels around offense and moral and physical injury, speech and silence, and more pressing questions of rights and safety than ever before.

For many of us, transgressing is undesirable yet unavoidable. Inevitably, we will hurt someone whether we want to or not, and when that happens, not only do we have to deal with the interpersonal consequences, we also have to deal with how we feel about ourselves. Are we able to forgive ourselves, learn from the experience, provide an authentic apology, and move forward? Do we brush it off, letting ourselves off too easy, and fail to address the situation well? Do we stew in shame and regret, punishing ourselves far out of proportion for far too long? What determines how we respond?

Is self-forgiveness real?

In their recently published work, Cornish, Woodyatt, Morris, Conroy and Townsdin (2018) explore how we deal with ourselves when we have offended another person. In two studies, they look whether there are indeed differences between genuine self-forgiveness, self-exoneration (or pseudo self-forgiveness), and self-condemnation, and begin to look at factors which may be involved, including common personality traits.

In the first study, Cornish and colleagues surveyed 313 participants, about 65 percent of whom were women, with an average age of 19.5 years, predominantly White. In reference to a specific offense they committed against a person close to them, they completed several scales of interest: the State Self-Forgiveness Scale; Perceived responsibility; Self-condemnation; the Self-Compassion Scale—Short Form; Interpersonal Personality Item Pool (to measure neuroticism); the Forgiveness of Self subscale of the Heartland Forgiveness Scale; and psychological distress using the Clinical Outcomes in Routine Evaluation instrument. The degree to which participants actually took personal responsibility was assessed by the participant herself as well as by a third-party rater, to see whether individuals under-estimate their own responsibility when it comes to transgressing against others.

Participants reported a variety of offenses toward others including disrespect or humiliating them (64 percent), trust violations (16 percent), relationship neglect (7 percent), relationship abandonment (7 percent), physical and/or verbal abuse (4 percent), and “other” offenses. In descending order of frequency, offenses were reportedly committed against a friend, a romantic partner, a parent, a non-friend peer, sibling, family member, or another person.

Analysis of the data to look for patterns in self-forgiveness, personal responsibility, self-compassion, distress, personal responsibility and neuroticism found the best fit was a three-factor model distinguishing self-forgiveness, self-exoneration, and self-condemnation. People in the self-forgiveness cluster showed higher levels of self-forgiveness, a greater sense of personal responsibility, and less self-condemnation. People in the self-exoneration cluster showed greater self-forgiveness, lower self-condemnation, and much lower personal responsibility taking. Those in the self-condemning cluster had lower self-forgiveness, greater personality responsibility, and higher levels of self-condemnation.

Furthermore, participants in the self-condemning cluster had less self-compassion and greater psychological distress and neuroticism. In terms of personal responsibility, only those in the self-exonerating cluster rated their own responsibility lower than other people did, supporting the notion that self-exoneration involves letting oneself “off the hook” too easily, forestalling true self-forgiveness. Yet, the self-forgiveness and self-exonerating groups did not differ in terms of distress or self-compassion, supporting the notion that both true and pseudo self-forgiveness can lessen the negative impact consequent to hurting other people while suggesting that self-forgiveness is more profound and heartfelt while self-exoneration is more superficial and defensive.

In the second study, researchers looked more deeply into personality factors connected with self-forgiveness to include measures of grandiose narcissism, vulnerable narcissism, and empathic concern, in order to better understand whether self-forgiveness comes out of an immediate need to seek relief (hedonic happiness) or longer-term efforts to find satisfaction through creating meaning (eudaimonic happiness), and how self-esteem and sensitivity to social approval affect how people respond when they offend others.

A similar group of 287 participants followed the same process as the first study, reporting an offense they’d committed against another and completing the same measures. In addition, they completed measures of narcissism using the Hypersensitive Narcissism Scale and the Narcissism Personality Inventory, the Empathic Concern Subscale of the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, and the Differentiated Process Scale of Self-Forgiveness, which is intended to check for genuine self-forgiveness, but may, according to the study authors, actually only reflect sense of responsibility.

The second study found similar patterns of offense and the same three clusters of self-forgiveness, self-exoneration and self-condemnation as the first study. Vulnerable narcissism was associated with both self-exoneration and self-condemnation, but not self-forgiveness, which makes sense as difficulty dealing with personal insecurity makes it harder to face challenging aspects of oneself. There were no differences found across the clusters for grandiose narcissism. Empathic concern was lower for the self-exoneration group compared with the self-condemnation group—but not the self-forgiveness group. The picture around personality remained unclear, but it did appear that vulnerability factors made self-forgiveness more challenging.

Lessons learned.

By embracing and learning from personal responsibility, individuals may make more headway from self-forgiveness than those who lean toward either self-exoneration or self-condemnation. People who experience greater insecurity and concern about others’ opinions, in terms of neuroticism and vulnerable narcissism, as well as to an extent the tendency to empathize with others, are prone to miss out on the potential benefits of self-forgiveness.

Genuine self-forgiveness is associated with greater well-being and opportunities for personal development as well as better relationship outcomes when we address hurting others with a heartfelt apology and efforts to change positively. Compared with self-exoneration—associated with superficial efforts to get relief which leave others dissatisfied and injured, and self-condemnation—resulting in an excessive focus on one’s own feelings of being hurt and unforgiving of oneself, rather than others’ needs after an offense, self-forgiveness, while more difficult, is usually preferable.

Additional work is required to understand how personality and attachment style play out when there are interpersonal transgressions, but the research presented here is an interesting pilot study when it comes to personality factors. No doubt narcissism is involved, both grandiose and vulnerable, but the current study did not appear to give a clear picture of where narcissism and empathy are involved, and is limited in surveying a "convenience sample" consisting mostly of young White female college undergraduates using a limited set of personality measures. There is a lot to consider, and research is early on. In addition to personality and attachment, understanding how self-forgiveness connects with gratitude, compassion, resilience, relationship repair and satisfaction, and related factors, will provide necessary detail.

Nevertheless, the clearer, more robust finding is that there are distinct responses when we offend another person, and these responses are not created equal. Self-forgiveness, self-exoneration and self-condemnation are the three strategies we choose from when we cross the line. Generally speaking, if we can swing it, self-forgiveness is usually the best choice, but may not work, or even be possible for everyone. Addressing our own feelings of guilt and shame to respond to our own moral transgressions against others is a part of life, and coping activity with greater resilience and self-candor is more likely to lead to better relationships with ourselves and others.

Relying on self-exoneration provides relief, but kicks the can down the road and may leave a trail of casualties in our wake, and self-condemnation just turns the injury back on ourselves, failing to address the situation with the other person while making it impossible for them to share how they feel with us, because if they do, we just beat ourselves up more. Self-condemnation and self-exoneration both may end up in loneliness and isolation by different paths, but the hard work of self-forgiveness is more likely to lead to mutuality and repair when injury inevitably affects our relationships.


Cornish MA, Woodyatt L, Morris G, Conroy A, & Townsdin J. Self-forgiveness, self-exoneration, and self-condemnation: Individual differences associated with three patterns of responding to interpersonal offenses. Personality and Individual Differences. 129 (2018). 43-53.