Learn about what self-forgiveness means and how to forgive yourself for past mistakes.
No human is perfect. In fact, human fallibility is one of the great enduring truths of the universe. So, if we know that mistakes are an inevitable part of life, then why is it so hard to forgive ourselves for them? How do we manage the feelings of guilt or shame over the mistakes we have made? And how do we allow ourselves to move forward after we’ve betrayed someone we love or treated someone unjustly?
What Is Self-Forgiveness?
Self-forgiveness has been defined in a variety of ways. It’s been described as “a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged wrong while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself” (Enright, 1996) as well as “a shift from a fundamental estrangement to being at home with one’s self in the world . . . from an attitude of judgment to embracing who one is” (Bauer et al., 1992). Though researchers have not reached a consensus on a single, precise definition of self-forgiveness, most definitions include the following characteristics (Webb et al., 2017):
One of the primary features of self-forgiveness is self-acceptance. Some researchers even suggest that self-forgiveness is more accurately understood as a form of self-acceptance (Vitz & Meade, 2011). This understanding of self-forgiveness emphasizes accepting your fallibility, recognizing that you are an imperfect person and that you are not defined by your mistakes.
Willingness to accept accountability
This one might seem obvious considering that you can’t forgive yourself if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong, but it’s a really important component of the process of self-forgiveness and is often the hardest and most painful step.
Genuine effort to change
This is an important factor because it’s the difference between true self-forgiveness and simply “letting yourself off the hook”. The honest desire to learn from your mistakes and to do better in the future is crucial.
How to Forgive Yourself For Past Mistakes
Experts in the study of self-forgiveness suggest that one of the most critical components of self-forgiveness is the ability to “recognize that each person is part of a community of imperfect others who are mostly striving to be the best people they can be” (Jacinto & Edwards, 2011). With our fallibility and good intentions in mind, let’s look at the 4 steps to forgiving ourselves for our mistakes.
Steps To Self-Forgiveness: The Four R’s
Responsibility. The first step to self-forgiveness is accepting responsibility. This includes an honest assessment of what was in your control and the part you played in the transgression. It’s important to accept an appropriate amount of responsibility. We may be inclined to blame ourselves entirely for something when the responsibility was shared or avoid accountability when we were in the wrong. Both of these extremes will impede our ability to sincerely forgive ourselves and move forward. This stage also includes accepting your value, your inherent worthiness of self-love and self-respect, and making the decision to forgive yourself.
Remorse. Though undesirable, feeling some amount of guilt is actually a very important part of self-forgiveness. This doesn’t mean that you need to beat yourself up of course. Treating yourself harshly can be counterproductive, but truly empathizing with the person you have hurt (even when that person is yourself) and expressing those feelings can help you move toward healing and forgiveness.
Restoration. This is an action-oriented step in which you seek to make amends and repair any damage you might have caused. Restoration also includes identifying the behavioral patterns that led to the transgression so that you can understand where the harmful behavior came from and take measures to prevent it from happening again.
Renewal. This is the stage of personal growth from which you emerge with self-acceptance, self-compassion, and a greater understanding of yourself and your personal values. Renewal includes rewriting your story, synthesizing a new perspective of the world and the self that considers the reality of your past actions without using them to define yourself.
Self-forgiveness is a skill that, when practiced, allows you to start the next chapter of your story, to let go of the debilitating narrative that says, “I am terrible and unworthy of love and acceptance” and replace it with “I am a fallible and precious human who learned an important lesson which has helped me to become more than I once was.” Each step in this process – taking responsibility, allowing yourself to feel remorse, taking action to repair the damage done, and renewing your values and identity – can all be challenging for their own reasons and may be more or less difficult in different contexts. However, self-forgiveness is a skill that can be learned and, like any other skill, requires practice and intention. As you move through your self-forgiveness journey, here are some affirmations to help you along the way.
Bauer, L., Duffy, J., Fountain, E., Halling, S., Holzer, M., Jones, E., Leifer, M., & Rowe, J. O. (1992). Exploring Self-Forgiveness. Journal of Religion and Health, 31(2), 149–160.
Enright, R. D. (1996). Counseling within the forgiveness triad: On forgiving, receiving forgiveness, and self‐forgiveness. Counseling and values, 40(2), 107-126.
Jacinto, G. A., & Edwards, B. L. (2011). Therapeutic stages of forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 21(4), 423–437.
Vitz, P. C., & Meade, J. M. (2011). Self-forgiveness in Psychology and Psychotherapy: A Critique. Journal of Religion and Health, 50(2), 248–263.
Webb, J. R., Bumgarner, D. J., Conway-Williams, E., Dangel, T., & Hall, B. B. (2017). A consensus definition of self-forgiveness: Implications for assessment and treatment. Spirituality in Clinical Practice, 4(3), 216–227.