The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself
|to forgive ourselves is to get up after falling and and move forward|
The ability to forgive ourselves for mistakes, large and small, is critical to psychological well-being. Difficulties with self-forgiveness are linked with suicide attempts, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse, among other problems.
But self-forgiveness can have a dark side. Research suggests that while it relieves unpleasant feelings like guilt and shame, it may also—in some cases—reduce empathy for others and motivation to make amends. In other words, self-forgiveness may at times serve as a crutch, producing a comforting sense of moral righteousness rather than a motivating sense of moral responsibility.
Is there a healthy way to forgive ourselves? Recent research, described below, can shed some light on this question. (It applies primarily to situations where people have behaved in harmful ways and have not yet taken responsibility or made amends. Importantly, it is not relevant to those who unfairly blame themselves for an event for which they were not responsible, such as being the victim of violence or abuse.)
1. Don’t get rid of guilt. Feeling bad when we do something wrong is natural, and maybe even useful. Without it, where would we find the motivation to do better next time? But not all bad feelings are equally beneficial. Shame, which involves negative feelings about the self as a whole (i.e., feeling worthless), is associated with defensive strategies like denial, avoidance, and even physical violence. Feeling like you’re just a bad person at your core can undermine efforts to change, as change may not even seem possible from this perspective. Guilt, by contrast, involves feeling bad about one’s behavior and its consequences.
Research suggests that criminal offenders who recognize that doing bad things does not make them bad people are less likely to continue engaging in criminal activity. And remorse, rather than self-condemnation, has been shown to encourage prosocial behavior. Healthy self-forgiveness therefore seems to involve releasing destructive feelings of shame and self-condemnation while still experiencing some degree of guilt and remorse. But guilt should only be maintained to the extent that it helps fuel positive change; when it’s excessive or relentless, it can become harmful.
2. Own up. In theory, self-forgiveness is only relevant in the context of transgressions that an individual has acknowledged and taken responsibility for. Without the recognition of wrongdoing, what would there be to forgive? In practice, however, self-forgiveness can sometimes be code for avoiding culpability. The self-forgiveness formula most conducive to constructive change seems to involve an acknowledgement of both positive and negative aspects of the self.
Research suggests, for example, that people who have more balanced, realistic views of themselves are less likely to use counter-productive coping strategies like self-handicapping than those who either inflate or deflate their self-images. Along similar lines, self-forgiveness interventions have been shown to be most helpful when combined with responsibility-taking exercises. Alone, self-forgiveness seems to do little to motivate change.
3. Make amends. Just as we might not forgive someone else until they have made it up to us in some way (although there are of course exceptions), forgiving ourselves may be most likely to stick when we feel like we’ve earned it.
So how do we know when we’ve adequately paid our dues? In some cases, it’s obvious what needs to be done (e.g., if we damage someone’s property, we would repair or replace it), but in other cases the criteria for making amends may be less clear. The best way to find out may be to ask the person you’ve wronged.
Rather than simply going through the motions of atonement, we should consider what kinds of reparative behaviors will actually make a difference for others, and for our own growth. Even some forms of self-punishment may be useful when motivated by a desire for self-improvement rather than anger at the self, though researchers recommend that such punishment be mild and time-limited, and never physically or psychologically harmful. For example, a teenager who has engaged in shoplifting might decide to donate clothes to a homeless shelter.
4. Foster empathy for the victim. Research has found that self-forgiveness is negatively associated with empathy for victims. As self-forgiveness increases, empathy tends to decrease. This disconnect is understandable: it’s difficult to have compassion for oneself while also having compassion for those one has hurt. But self-forgiveness is not supposed to be easy, and without incorporating empathy it can feel empty. Practices like lovingkindness meditation can help us cultivate compassion for ourselves while also offering it to others.
Importantly, self-forgiveness need not be all-or-nothing. It’s a slow process that may not result in a full release of negative feelings or an exclusively rosy view of oneself. Rather than being a form of self-indulgence, self-forgiveness might be better seen as an act of humility, an honest acknowledgment of our capacity for causing harm as well as our potential for doing good.
This article has been revised in response to concerns raised by readers about how it might be misread. We are grateful for the feedback.
31 7 2020
My Thoughts Today -
1 8 2020
3 7 2021 updated
Taking the Steps to Forgive Yourself
Forgiveness is often defined as a deliberate decision to let go of feelings of anger, resentment, and retribution toward someone who you believe has wronged you. However, while you may be quite generous in your ability to forgive others, you may be much harder on yourself.
Everyone makes mistakes, but learning how to learn from these errors, let go, move on, and forgive yourself is important for mental health and well-being.1 Learn more about why self-forgiveness can be beneficial and explore some steps that may help you become better at forgiving your own mistakes.
How to Forgive Yourself
Self-forgiveness is not about letting yourself off the hook nor is it a sign of weakness. The act of forgiveness, whether you are forgiving yourself or someone who has wronged you, does not suggest that you are condoning the behavior.
Forgiveness means that you accept the behavior, you accept what has happened, and you are willing to move past it and move on with your life without ruminating over past events that cannot be changed.2
One therapeutic approach to self-forgiveness suggests that four key actions can be helpful.3
The 4 R's of Self-Forgiveness
Forgiving yourself is about more than just putting the past behind you and moving on. It is about accepting what has happened and showing compassion to yourself.4
Facing what you have done or what has happened is the first step toward self-forgiveness. It's also the hardest step. If you have been making excuses, rationalizing, or justifying your actions in order to make them seem acceptable, it is time to face up and accept what you have done.
By taking responsibility and accepting that you have engaged in actions that have hurt others, you can avoid negative emotions, such as excessive regret and guilt.
As a result of taking responsibility, you may experience a range of negative feelings, including guilt and shame. When you've done something wrong, it's completely normal, even healthy, to feel guilty about it. These feelings of guilt and remorse can serve as a springboard to positive behavior change.5
While guilt implies that you're a good person who did something bad, shame makes you see yourself as a bad person. This can bring up feelings of worthlessness which, left unresolved, can lead to addiction, depression, and aggression.6 Understand that making mistakes that you feel guilty about does not make you a bad person or undermine your intrinsic value.
Repair the Damage and Restore Trust
Making amends is an important part of forgiveness, even when the person you are forgiving is yourself. Just as you might not forgive someone else until they've made it up to you in some way, forgiving yourself is more likely to stick when you feel like you've earned it.
One way to move past your guilt is to take action to rectify your mistakes.7 Apologize if it is called for and look for ways that you can make it up to whomever you have hurt.
It may seem as if this portion of the process benefits only the person you've harmed, but there's something in it for you as well. Fixing your mistake means you'll never have to wonder if you could have done more.
Focus on Renewal
Everyone makes mistakes and has things for which they feel sorry or regretful. Falling into the trap of rumination, self-hatred, or even pity can be damaging and make it difficult to maintain your self-esteem and motivation.
Forgiving yourself often requires finding a way to learn from the experience and grow as a person.8 To do this, you need to understand why you behaved the way you did and why you feel guilty. What steps can you take to prevent the same behaviors again in the future? Yes, you might have messed up, but it was a learning experience that can help you make better choices in the future.
Get Advice From The Verywell Mind Podcast
Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast shares why it's OK to give second chances, featuring Purple Heart recipient Craig Rossi and Fred.
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While self-forgiveness is a powerful practice, it's important to recognize that this model is not intended for people who unfairly blame themselves for something they aren't responsible for.
People who have suffered abuse, trauma, or loss, for example, may feel shame and guilt even though they had no control.9 This can be particularly true when people feel they should have been able to predict, and therefore avoid, a negative outcome (an example of what is known as the hindsight bias).10
The standard axiom within psychology has been that forgiveness is a good thing and that it conveys a number of benefits, whether you have experienced a minor slight or have suffered a much more serious grievance. This includes both forgiving others as well as yourself.
Letting go and offering yourself forgiveness can help boost your feelings of wellness and improve your image of yourself. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people practice self-forgiveness, they experience lower levels of depression and anxiety.1 Similarly, self-compassion is associated with higher levels of success, productivity, focus, and concentration.
The act of forgiveness can also positively impact your physical health. Research shows that forgiveness can improve cholesterol levels, reduce bodily pain, and blood pressure, and lower your risk of a heart attack.11
Having a compassionate and forgiving attitude toward yourself is also a critical component of successful relationships.1 Being able to forge close emotional bonds with other people is important, but so is the ability to repair those bonds when they become fraught or damaged.
One study found that both parties benefit from the "offending partner" showing self-forgiveness. Specifically, both partners tended to feel more relationship satisfaction and have fewer negative thoughts about each other as a result of genuine self-forgiveness.12
So what is it that makes self-forgiveness so difficult at times? Why do people often continue to punish and berate themselves over relatively minor mistakes? Engaging in actions that are not in line with our own values or self-beliefs can lead to feelings of guilt and regret—or worse, self-loathing.13
Some people are just naturally more prone to rumination, which can make it easier to dwell on negative feelings. The fact that self-forgiveness involves acknowledging wrongdoing and admitting that you might need to change can make the process more challenging.2
Lastly, people who are not yet ready to change may find it harder to truly forgive themselves. Instead, of admitting they might need to change, they might engage in a sort of pseudo-self-forgiveness by simply overlooking or excusing their behavior.2
While self-forgiveness is generally thought of as a positive action that can help restore the sense of self, there is also research indicating that it can sometimes have a detrimental effect. The major pitfall of self-forgiveness is that it can sometimes reduce empathy for those who have been hurt by your actions.
Although self-forgiveness often relieves feelings of guilt, there are times this inward focus may make it more difficult to identify with others.14 You can avoid this by consciously practicing empathy with those who have been affected by your actions.
A Word From Verywell
Forgiving people who have hurt you can be challenging, but forgiving yourself can be just as difficult. It is important to remember that learning how to forgive yourself is not a one-size-fits-all process.
It is never simple or easy, but working on this form of self-compassion can convey a number of possible health benefits.4 In addition to reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, self-forgiveness can also have positive effects on your physical health and relationships.
It is a self esteem building process from not forgiving self to forgiving self.