Healing Your Shame and Guilt Through Self-Forgiveness
These four avenues can lead you toward self-forgiveness.
Posted June 1, 2017 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
“True confession consists of telling our deed in such a way that our soul is changed in the telling it.” —Maude Petre
We hear a lot about the importance of forgiving those who have harmed us, but what about forgiving ourselves? Is that important as well? I believe that it is.
When we harm someone it is normal and healthy to feel bad about it, to experience regret and to wish we could take it back or do something to make the person feel better. What isn’t healthy is to continually beat ourselves up for our offense and to determine that we are a bad person because of it. The first experience is generally thought of as guilt while the second is considered to be shame (There is little agreement, even among professional therapists, as to the exact difference between guilt and shame so I don’t want to get sidetracked into discussing this controversy. For our purposes, I will present what I consider to be the most helpful information about the issue).
Shame and guilt can feel very similar—in both experiences we feel bad about ourselves. But guilt can be understood as feeling disappointed in oneself for violating an important internal value or code of behavior. Feeling guilty can be healthy: It can open doors leading to positive behavior change. With shame, one can also feel a disappointment in oneself but no value has been violated. As Gershen Kaufman explained in Shame: The Power of Caring, “The meaning of the two experiences is as different as feeling inadequate is from feeling immoral.”
Shame is incredibly unhealthy, causing lowered self-esteem (feelings of unworthiness) and behavior that reinforces that self-image. As we are learning more and more, shame can be an extremely debilitating emotion. Shame is responsible for a myriad of problems, including but not limited to:
- Self-criticism and self-blame
- Self-destructive behaviors (abusing your body with food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, self-mutilation, being accident-prone)
- Self-sabotaging behavior (starting fights with loved ones, sabotaging jobs)
- The belief that you do not deserve good things
- Intense rage (frequent physical fights, road rage)
- Acting out against society (breaking the rules, breaking the law)
- Continuing to repeat the cycle of abuse through either victim behavior or abusive behavior
Some have explained the difference between shame and guilt as follows: When we feel guilt, we feel bad about something we did or neglected to do. When we feel shame, we feel bad about who we are. When we feel guilty, we need to learn that it is okay to make mistakes. When we feel shame we need to learn that it is okay to be who we are.
I believe that self-forgiveness is the most powerful step you can take to rid yourself of debilitating shame. This is particularly true for those who have been abused, but it applies to everyone. Self-forgiveness is not only recommended but absolutely essential if we wish to become emotionally healthy and have peace of mind. It goes like this: The more shame you heal, the more you will be able to see yourself more clearly—the good and the bad. You will be able to recognize and admit how you have harmed yourself and others. Your relationships with others will change and deepen. More importantly, your relationship with yourself will improve.
In my book, It Wasn’t Your Fault: Healing the Shame of Childhood Sexual Abuse through Self-Compassion, I wrote about how compassion is the antidote to shame. Self-compassion acts to neutralize the poison of shame and remove the toxins created by shame. Self-forgiveness is an important aspect of self-compassion. It acts to soothe our body, mind, and soul from the pain caused by shame, and it facilitates the overall healing process.
The Obstacles to Self-Forgiveness
Many people experience a lot of resistance to the idea of self-forgiveness. You may view self-forgiveness as “letting yourself off the hook,” as if self-judgment is the only way to improve. But negative self-judgment and self-blaming can actually act as an obstacle to self-improvement. The more shame you feel about your past actions and behaviors, the more your self-esteem is lowered and the less likely it is you will feel motivated to change. And without self-forgiveness, your level of shame will cause you to defend yourself from taking on more shame by refusing to see your faults and not being open to criticism or correction.
The good news is that you can resolve to change your behavior and forgive yourself at the same time. In fact, the more you forgive yourself, the more you will be motivated to change. Self-forgiveness opens the door to change by releasing resistance and deepening your connection to yourself.
Still another reason you may have difficulty forgiving yourself is that you may have a powerful need to “be good” and to be seen as “all good” in the eyes of others, as well as yourself. This need to be “all good” may have started because your parents or other caretakers had unreasonable expectations of you and may have severely punished or abandoned you when you made a mistake. Now you may find that you are equally critical of yourself and equally unforgiving.
If you have harmed others and resist forgiving yourself, you may ask, “Why should I forgive myself? It won’t help those I’ve harmed.” The most powerful reason: If you do not forgive yourself, the shame you carry will compel you to continue to act in harmful ways toward others and yourself. And forgiving yourself will help you to heal another layer of shame and free you to continue becoming a better human being. Without the burden of self-hatred, you have been carrying around you can literally transform your life.
Forgiveness Essential Reads
How to Forgive Yourself for the Harm You Caused Others
Forgiving yourself for the ways you have hurt or harmed others will probably be the hardest thing that you will ever have to do in order to heal your shame. In fact, it may be the hardest thing you ever have to do in your life. This is especially true if you have repeated the cycle of abuse by harming another person in the same ways you were abused.
For example, it may seem impossible to forgive yourself for abusing a child. After all, you know first-hand how much child abuse damages a child. And you know first-hand how much the shame that accompanies abuse can devastate a person’s life. Here are some examples of what clients have shared with me regarding the shame they felt:
- “How could I possibly abuse my own child the way I was abused? I knew how much it devastated me to be beaten by my father. And yet I turned right around and did it to my own children. It’s unforgivable.”
- “I promised myself I would not treat my children the way I was treated. And yet to my horror, the very same words my mother said to me came out of my mouth. Those horrible, shaming, devastating words, “I hate you. I wish you had never been born.’ How can I forgive myself for saying those horrible words to the people I love most in the world?”
- “I feel like a monster. The shame I feel for molesting my daughter is so intense I can’t even describe it. I couldn’t have done anything worse to her. I’ve affected her life in such a horrible way. She must feel so betrayed. She must hate me and I don’t blame her.”
Four Avenues Toward Self-Forgiveness
As difficult as it may seem to be able to forgive yourself for the harm you have caused others, there are several effective ways to go about it:
- Common humanity
- Earning your Forgiveness: taking responsibility, apologizing and making amends
- Asking for forgiveness from your higher power.
As you read the following suggestions, choose the avenues that resonate the most with you and your situation.
Self-Understanding Can Lead to Self-Forgiveness
If you were abused as a child and then repeated the cycle of abuse with your own children, it is vital that you gain some self-understanding. Understanding that the trauma(s) you experienced created problems within you that were out of your control can go a long way toward forgiving yourself for the ways that you have hurt others. For example, understanding that your addiction—whether it be to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, shopping, or gambling—has been a way to self-medicate and to cope with anxiety and fear, can help you to stop beating yourself up for the harm your addiction caused those close to you. Understanding that the reason you have become abusive toward your children or your partner or have developed a pattern of allowing others to abuse you comes directly from your abuse experiences will hopefully help you to stop chastising yourself for these behaviors.
Research shows that the long-term effects of trauma (such as abuse in childhood) tend to be most obvious and prominent when people are stressed, in new situations, or in situations that remind them of the circumstances of their trauma. Unfortunately, becoming a parent creates all three of these circumstances for someone who was abused in childhood. First-time parenthood, in particular, is stressful and almost always triggers memories of our own childhood traumas. This sets the stage for child abuse.
In addition, the sad truth is that those who were abused or neglected in childhood are more likely to become abusive or neglectful of their own children than someone who didn’t have these experiences. There are certain traits that you may have that predisposed you to treat your children in abusive or neglectful ways. These include: an inability to have compassion toward your child; a tendency to take things too personally (this may have caused you to overreact to your children’s behavior by yelling, calling them names or hitting them); being overly invested in your children looking good (and you looking good as their parent) because of your lack of self-confidence; and an insistence on your children “minding” you or respecting you to compensate for your shame or lack of confidence.
And there is still another reason that is not often discussed that can cause a parent to become abusive: seeing your own weakness or vulnerability in your child. Those with a history of having been victimized often develop a tendency to hate or despise weakness. If you saw weakness in your child you may have been reminded of your own vulnerability and victimization and this may have ignited your own self-hatred, thus causing you to lash out at your child.
Your own experiences of abuse or neglect may have prevented you from developing the qualities necessary to be a good parent. For example, if your mother did not emotionally bond with you, you may have found it difficult, if not impossible, to bond with your own children; if your parents looked to you to meet needs that should have been met by other adults, you may have repeated this pattern; and if your mother did not protect you from the abusers in your life, you may not have protected your own children from the abusers in your life.
Common Humanity and Gaining Compassion for Yourself
Kristin Neff is an associate professor in human development at the University of Texas at Austin and is a pioneer who first established self-compassion as a field of study. In her construct of self-compassion, she names recognition of the common human experience—or what she calls, “Common Humanity,” as the second fundamental element of self-compassion. In her book, Self-Compassion, she states that “self-compassion honors the fact that all human beings are fallible, that wrong choices and feelings of regret are inevitable.”
The truth is, we have all harmed others. In fact, every single person on this planet has harmed at least one other person in ways that have shaped that person’s life. Knowing this and knowing that you are not alone, can help you to have compassion for yourself and to forgive yourself. Feeling compassion for yourself does not release you from taking responsibility for your actions (we’ll discuss this later on in this blog post). But it can release you from the self-hatred that prevents you from forgiving yourself and free you to respond to the situation with clarity. Rather than tormenting yourself with guilt and shame, having compassion for your own suffering and for the suffering of those you have harmed can help you achieve the clarity necessary for you to think of ways you can help those you have harmed. (We will also discuss making amends and repairing the harm later in the blog post.)
Acknowledging the interconnected nature of our lives is another aspect of Common Humanity. The truth is, who we are, how we think and how we behave is inextricably interwoven with other people and events. (Neff, 2011). In other words, you didn’t get to where you are today all by yourself. Your tendency to be a victim or your tendency to be abusive did not just happen. You must continue to look for the causes and conditions that lead you to these unhealthy behavior patterns.
When you examine your mistakes and failures it becomes clear that you did not consciously choose to make them and even in those rare cases when you did make a conscious choice, the motivation for your actions was colored by your abuse or other experiences. Because of the shame you have carried, you closed your heart to others and became blind to how your actions were harming others. In addition, outside circumstances also contributed to you forming your particular patterns. These outside circumstances can be any of the following: genetics, family experiences—including the way your parents interacted with each other and the way they interacted with you—and life circumstances such as poverty, family history, and your cultural background.
As Kristin Neff wrote in Self-Compassion: “When we begin to recognize that we are a product of countless factors, we don’t need to take our ‘personal failings’ so personally. When we acknowledge the intricate web of causes and conditions in which we are all embedded, we can be less judgmental of ourselves and others. A deep understanding of interconnectedness allows us to have compassion for the fact that we’re doing the best we can given the hand life has dealt us.”
Exercise: Your Sins and Omissions
Write a list of the people you have harmed and the ways you have harmed them. One by one, go through your list and write down the various causes and conditions that led you to this action or inaction. You’ve already made the connection between your harmful actions and the fact that you were abused or neglected. Now think of other precipitating factors such as a family history of violence and a family history of addiction, as well as more subtle factors such as stress due to financial problems or marital problems.
Now ask yourself to consider why you didn’t stop yourself from harming this person. For example, were you so full of rage that you couldn’t control yourself? Did you hate yourself so much that you didn’t care how much you hurt someone else? Had you built up such a defensive wall that you couldn’t have empathy or compassion for the person you harmed?
Now that you have a better understanding of the causes and conditions that led you to act as you did, see if you can apply the concept of Common Humanity (Neff, 2011) toward yourself: You were an imperfect, fallible human being and like all humans sometimes do, you acted in ways that hurt someone else. Honor the limitations of your human imperfection. Have compassion for yourself. Forgive yourself.
Earning Your Forgiveness
If you continue to find yourself resisting forgiving yourself, ask yourself this question: “Why wouldn’t I want to forgive myself?” If your answer is “I don’t deserve it,” that is your shame talking. If you still feel like you don’t deserve forgiveness, perhaps you believe you need to earn it.
How do you earn forgiveness? First of all, you need to admit to yourself and others the wrongs you have committed. Unless you tell the complete truth about how you harmed others, first to yourself and then to the person or people you have hurt (if possible), you may not believe you deserve to be forgiven. (And incidentally, unless you admit what you did to harm the person or people you have harmed, they may not be willing to forgive you).
Dwelling on your mistakes does no one any good, including the person you harmed.
When you take responsibility for your actions you may feel more shame at the moment, but that feeling of shame will be replaced with a feeling of self-respect and of genuine pride (as opposed to false pride).
To prepare yourself for this process:
Spend some time thinking seriously about how your actions or inaction have harmed the person.
Completing the following sentence may help in this process:
“I harmed ________by___________________.”
Write down all the ways your action or inaction harmed this person.
“I caused______________to suffer in the following ways______________.”
The next step is to go to those you have harmed and admit what you have done to hurt them. It is important that you tell those you have harmed that they have a right to their anger and that you encourage them to voice their anger directly to you. Make certain, however, that you do not allow anyone to verbally abuse you or to shame you. Taking responsibility may also include admitting to others, such as other family members, how you abused or neglected your victim.
Your admittance of what you did to harm others is doubly powerful if it is accompanied by a heartfelt, sincere apology. One of the most frequent comments that I hear from those who were abused in childhood is that they wish the offender would admit what he or she did and apologize to them for it. Think of an incident when you felt wronged by another person. What did you want from that person in order to forgive him or her? Most people say they want an apology. But why is this the case? It isn't just the words, "I'm sorry," that we need to hear. We need the wrongdoer to take responsibility for his or her action and we need to know that the wrongdoer feels regret or remorse for having harmed us.
An apology can remove the cloak of shame that even the most remorseful person carries around. On the other hand, if you don't experience enough shame when you wrong someone else, an apology can help remind you of the harm you caused. The act of having to apologize to someone usually causes us to feel humiliated. Remembering that humiliation the next time you are tempted to repeat the same act can discourage you from acting on your impulse.
When we are able to develop the courage to admit when we are wrong and to work past our fears and resistance and apologize, we develop a deep sense of respect in ourselves. This self-respect can, in turn, affect our self-esteem, self-confidence, and overall outlook on life. When I apologize to you I show you that I respect you and care about your feelings. I let you know that I did not intend to hurt you and that it is my intention to treat you fairly in the future. If you apologize for abusing or neglecting a child, even though that person is now grown, you will not only validate his or her experience but help the person to stop blaming himself or herself for the abuse.
How to Give A Meaningful Apology
A meaningful apology is one that communicates what I call the three R's: regret, responsibility, and remedy.
- A statement of regret for having caused the inconvenience, hurt, or damage. This includes an expression of empathy toward the other person showing that you understand how your action or inaction harmed him or her.
- An acceptance of responsibility for your actions. For an apology to be effective it must be clear that you are accepting total responsibility for your actions or inaction. This means not blaming anyone else for what you did and not making excuses for your actions.
- A statement of your willingness to take some action to remedy the situation. While you can't go back and undo or redo the past, you can do everything within your power to repair the harm you caused. Therefore, a meaningful apology needs to include a statement in which you offer restitution in some way, an offer to help the other person, or a promise to take action so that you will not repeat the behavior. In the case of emotional or physical abuse, you can enter therapy or a support group to make sure you do not abuse anyone again. You can offer to pay for your victim’s therapy or you can donate your time or money to organizations that work to help victims of abuse.
For more information on how to give a meaningful apology refer to my book, The Power of Apology.
Ask Your Creator or Higher Power for Forgiveness
When we face the truth about how we have hurt others, sometimes severely, the feelings of guilt and shame can be overwhelming. Often, the only way we can find compassion for ourselves or self-forgiveness is to reach out to something bigger than our individual selves.
Whatever your religious or spiritual beliefs, asking your higher power for comfort, compassion and forgiveness can be a powerful step in forgiving yourself. This may be as simple as praying to God to forgive you for your sins, or it may involve a more structured gesture. For example, the act of confession within the Catholic church is essentially an apology to God. It has all the important components of apology—a statement of regret, an acceptance of responsibility for one's actions, a promise to not repeat the offense, and the request for forgiveness. In the Jewish tradition, it has long been the custom to seek forgiveness from family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues during the time of the High Holy Days.
You may also wish to pray to your higher power for help in your process of self-forgiveness. Many of my clients have reported that by doing this they believe they received help in this endeavor.
If you have learned from your mistake, and do not wish to repeat it, then you no longer need to feel guilt or shame about it. Forgive yourself and let it go.
If you find you are still overwhelmed with guilt or shame about how your past behavior has affected someone, it will be important to realize and remember this truth: The most effective method of self-forgiveness is for you to vow that you will not continue the same behavior and not hurt someone in the same way again.