Self-Forgiveness: A Healthy Response to Self-Directed Anger
Self-forgiveness is a compassionate response to toxic, self-directed anger.
Posted Jan 23, 2021
“Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves” –Thich Nhat Hanh
How do we make peace with ourselves when we’ve hurt someone, failed in a relationship, a job or career, been self-destructive, or haven’t lived in accord with our values? How do we overcome toxic self-directed anger, shame, and guilt that might result from the harsh self-criticism regarding our real and perceived transgressions?
Self-directed anger can be included in the group of “moral emotions” (shame, guilt, and embarrassment) that guide and influence our behavior. They can be viewed as a wake-up call, a reminder to mindfully commit ourselves to the values and morals we wish to live by. However, when they become toxic, paralyzing in their intensity, these feelings call for self-forgiveness — a key component in the cultivation of healthy anger.
Self-forgiveness involves gradually letting go of self-critical and harsh judgments: thoughts that foster toxic guilt or shame. Robert Enright, a prominent researcher on self-forgiveness, defines it as “a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself” (Enright, 1996, p. 115).
It is natural to feel bad when we’ve done something wrong. Such feelings move us to consider more positive behavior. However, it is destructive when such feelings paralyze us with rumination that yields both shame and self-directed anger, making us unable to move on. As I’ve indicated in a previous post (re: shame), toxic shame can then become the driving force for anger directed toward others and with ourselves.
While unforgiveness promotes anger directed inward, cultivating self-forgiveness is an intentional commitment to overcome such anger. As such, it is a meaningful component in the practice of healthy anger.
True self-forgiveness entails accepting full responsibility for our actions, genuine remorse rather than self-condemnation, and commitment to change (Fisher & Exline, 2006). Rather than forget, we remember our experience and use it as a resource to help guide us to making better choices in the future.
There is no fixed time frame for forgiveness. One instance may require simple and brief reflection, while other experiences require months or even years for moving past it.
Benefits of self-forgiveness
Numerous studies have shown that forgiveness is correlated with positive emotional health, including less anger, anxiety, and depression and greater satisfaction with life (Rasmussen, Stackhouse, Boon, et. al. 2019). Letting go of toxic self-directed anger, shame, and guilt, allows us to trust and become emotionally open with others and ourselves. It is also associated with our physical well-being (Davis, D., Yee Ho, M., Griffin, B., et. al., 2015). Further, numerous studies suggest that cultivating self-forgiveness is associated with improved conflict resolution in our most intimate relationship (Pelluchi, S., Paleari, F., Camillo, R., et. al., 2013).
Self-forgiveness as an expression of self-compassion
Self-forgiveness is a process that depends upon practices of self-compassion. And, like cultivating compassion in general, it is a choice that needs to be repeatedly made even while we have thoughts or feelings that oppose our inclination to do so.
Self-forgiveness involves self-compassion that grows from empathy with our selves. It calls for cognitive empathy that grows from understanding the “backstory” that has helped to shape our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. This includes looking at our recent as well as our distant past.
Self-forgiveness also requires emotional empathy, acknowledging that, like all humans, we deserve understanding and compassion. Empathy further helps us to move from resentment to acceptance and acknowledgment of our complexity.
General guidelines for promoting self-forgiveness
Self-forgiveness is a process that takes time. It requires courage and commitment to choose forgiveness even while still suffering. This is reflected in the “phase” model of forgiveness, “…in which an individual moves through an uncovering phase (e.g., denial, guilt, shame), a decision phase (e.g., change of heart), a work phase (e.g. self–awareness, compassion), and finally an outcome phase (e.g., finding meaning, new purpose; (Enright, 1996).”
Following are several exercises to help cultivate self-forgiveness.
Self-inquiry for self-forgiveness
Answer the following questions in order to support your cultivating self-forgiveness:
- Realistically, is there anything I could do to rectify the past? (Be aware of judging yourself with hindsight about the insights you lacked.)
- What can I do differently if I face a similar situation in the future?
- Identify a “mission statement” listing those values and morals that are meaningful to help guide your life.
- Describe how your life will improve if you embrace self-forgiveness.
Expanding empathy for yourself
Answer the following questions in order to expand empathy for yourself.
- What sense of threat or suffering prompted my harsh self-judgment?
- Does my behavior completely reflect who I am?
- What in my history contributed to my harsh self-judgment? For example: What hurts have I experienced? What past experiences have undermined my capacity for self-forgiveness? What past experiences may have inhibited my self-caring? What in my history has left me prone to shame — long before being confronted by my current situation?
Be mindful of rumination
Suppose you’re busy with your day and you have intrusive thoughts of shame and self-directed anger regarding what you did. Ask yourself if you are ruminating or if you could really benefit from further reflection about your situation. Make an appointment with yourself for further reflection if is indicated, setting aside 30-45 minutes.
If you realize you can’t do anything about what happened, look at your watch and ask yourself how much time you wish to spend with self-directed anger circulating through your body. Then breathe deeply for a few moments, and sense your surroundings — the sights, sounds, feel of your feet touching the ground, etc. When we observe our surroundings through our senses, we more fully live in the present moment and not in our heads.
Look for mentors of forgiveness
Identify others who have overcome personal wounds by embracing forgiveness as a way of healing. Speak with people with whom you feel close about their challenges and how they opened themselves to forgiveness. Additionally, look for examples in literature, movies, or on the Internet. Practice incorporating their qualities into your compassionate self.
Mindfulness practices help us become more able to notice and choose where we wish to focus our attention and intention. Practicing loving-kindness meditations can support the intentionality of self-forgiveness (Salzberg, 2020). These might include meditations such as:
May I have peace
May I be safe
May I choose forgiveness
May I have good health
Self-forgiveness involves sitting with the uncomfortable feelings associated with our transgressions. This requires skills to be able to honor and sit with them even as we strive to move past them. Psychologist Tara Brach offers a broad variety of meditations to help develop these skills.
Being human means we have flaws and weaknesses and we make mistakes. Unfortunately, for too many of us, we further our suffering by harshly judging ourselves for being human. Such harsh evaluations can lead to ongoing and paralyzing shame and self-directed anger. These moments call for self-forgiveness if we are to move past them — even while still experiencing such suffering.
Each moment we mindfully and incrementally choose to self-forgive, we infuse our life with energy to embrace the values and morals that are more consistent with our well-being. But when we choose such forgiveness, we cultivate “forgivingness,” a predisposition for forgiving not only ourselves but others as well. And, by doing so, we rid ourselves of toxic anger and make room for healthy anger.
Enright, R. (1996). Counseling within the for forgiveness triad: On forgiving, receiving forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Counseling and Values 40, 107-126.
Ibid. Enright, R.
Fisher, M., and Axline, J. (2006) Self-forgiveness versus excusing: The roles of remorse, effort, and acceptance of responsibility, Self and Identity, Vol 5(2), 127-146.
Rasmussen, K., Stackhouse, M., Boon, S., et. al. (2019). Met-analytic connections between forgiveness and health: The moderating effects of forgiveness-related distinctions. Psychology & Health, Vol 34(5), 515-534.
Davis, D., Yee Ho, M., Griffin, B., et. al. (2015). Forgiving the self and physical and mental health correlates: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Counseling Psychology Vol 62 (5) 329-335.
Pelluchi, S., Paleari, F., Camillo, R., et. al. (2013). Self-forgiveness in romantic relationships: it matters to both of us. J. Fam. Psychology Vol 27(6).
Enright R. (1996)
Salzberg, S. (2020). Lovingdindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Shambala Publishing, Boulder, CO.