I acknowledge that 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 one’s responses to them might make them better people in the future. There’s no effort to repair any damage. These people seem more concerned with removing negative emotions, such as remorse and regret, by wiping the slate clean. They treat themselves and their actions like an Etch-A-Sketch toy. Give a good shake, and all the troubling experiences and the negative emotions they create just disappear.
Genuine self-forgiveness can help restore a person’s sense that she has moral worth and dignity, even if she has made significant mistakes and caused great harm to others or to herself. It all comes down to what she is willing to do in the present and future. She must acknowledge what she’s done, repair as best she can and as circumstances allow, and commit to doing better in the future. The bitter irony is that the people who perhaps most need and deserve to forgive themselves cannot. The necessary reflection and acknowledgment can be very difficult, because some people are burdened by forms of self-deception. Self-deception 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 hold yourself to a standard 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 perfection is an 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 harms or injuries 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 notoriously 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 very 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 her own at herself. This may make a relationship go from bad to toxic and dangerous.
Let’s imagine Tina finally leaves her partner after many years. She feels as if she has really let herself down by having stayed for so long. She’s wasted too many years with someone who not only didn’t make her a better person but 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 toxic 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 were her partner’s responsibilities. This is a very hard thing to do.
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 all of this to herself; she chose to stay for so long. She sees her harms as self-inflicted. If she were to reframe particular decisions, that may help to reframe the broader picture. For example, she may come to see that she had very few options—each of them bad—to choose between. While rocks and hard places are both options, neither is a good one. She may reframe her actions in light of those choices and realize she did the best she could in difficult situations. In fact, she may see she was rather clever in coming up with third options in many situations. Something like this may help Tina to see herself as having a little more worth than she thought she had. This can be a huge achievement in healing and redeeming Tina’s sense of worth.
The commitment to a better present and future self builds off the acknowledgment and repair work. The commitment to being a better person in the future must involve the commitment to treat 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 for sure, but it can also be uplifting and liberating.
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