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. Forgiveness is usually believed to be a good thing. And 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.
Learn more about why self-forgiveness can be beneficial and explore some steps that may help you become better at forgiving your own mistakes.
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.
There are a number of reasons why self-forgiveness can be difficult at times.
One difficulty is that you might not only feel guilty for your actions; you might also experience shame over your thoughts and feelings. Wishing others ill or harm, for example, might cause people to experience guilt. Anger, envy, lust, and greed are also emotions that can result in feelings of guilt or remorse.
Forgiving yourself for such thoughts can be difficult in part because sometimes we are not fully conscious of all of these feelings.
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.
People who are not yet ready to change may find it harder to truly forgive themselves. Instead, they might engage in a sort of pseudo-self-forgiveness in which they simply overlook or excuse their behavior rather than seek self-acceptance and a willingness to change.
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.
Forgiveness can have a powerful impact on mental well-being, too. In one 2016 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, researchers found that stress, psychological wellness, and forgiveness share powerful interconnections. Research shows that people with high lifetime stress levels also experience poorer mental health outcomes. This study revealed that those who scored high on measures of forgiveness also exhibited better mental health, even if they also experienced high stress levels.
Research suggests that forgiveness can have a number of psychological benefits including reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric conditions. One major benefit comes from letting go of anger, which in turn leads to decreased stress. People who are able to lower their stress levels experienced better immunity and more energy as a result.
People who forgive might be less likely to experience some negative physical health symptoms and have decreased mortality rates. Feelings of anger and hostility have been linked to negative health outcomes. For example, one study found an association between anger and hostility and a greater incidence of coronary heart disease.
Anger, guilt, regret, and resentment can create havoc in relationships, so being able to forgive can go a long way toward improving your family life and friendships. Research suggests that the ability forgive is a critical component of successful social relationships. 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.
It is clear that being able to forgive others is essential for healthy social relationships, but being able to forgive yourself can also play a role in how you interact with other people in your life. When resentment is directed inwardly, it might cause you to isolate yourself from your loved ones or even project your negative feelings outwardly onto the people who care about you.
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 detrimental effects. Self-forgiveness may become maladaptive in the face of certain problematic behaviors.
In the case of addiction, for example, being unforgiving of the behavior may actually increase motivation to change. In one study of young adult gamblers, researchers found that among at-risk gamblers, self-forgiveness impaired readiness to change.
Forgiveness is not just ignoring a problem. 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.
Being able to forgive yourself is not a sign of weakness. The ability to extend empathy and understanding when you are hurting is never easy. In many cases, granting self-forgiveness is much harder than allowing yourself to wallow in anger or regret.
Self-forgiveness is not about letting yourself off the hook. The act of forgiveness, whether you are forgiving yourself or someone who has wronged you, does not suggest that you are condoning the behavior. It 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.
How to Forgive Yourself
Just as with any human characteristic, some people are naturally more forgiving than others. If you have low self-esteem and a tendency to blame yourself when things go wrong, you might find it much more difficult to grant yourself clemency.
One therapeutic approach to self-forgiveness suggests that four key actions can be helpful.
Accept responsibility for your actions. In an article published in the Journal of Counseling and Development, researchers Cornish and Wade suggest that taking responsibility for one’s actions is the first step toward authentic self-forgiveness. 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.
Allow yourself to feel remorse. Guilt is not always a bad thing. It allows you to think about consequences, feel empathy for others, and to look for ways to improve yourself. The key is to allow yourself to experience remorse without dwelling on unhealthy guilt.
Make amends for your actions. One way to move past your guilt is to take action to rectify your mistakes. Apologize if it is called for and look for ways that you can make it up to whomever you have hurt.
Find positive actions that will help you move forward. How can you emerge from this experience a better person? What steps can you take to prevent the same behaviors again in the future? Forgiving yourself often requires finding a way to learn from the experience and grow as a person.
Limitations to the Approach
However, it is important to recognize that people often experience guilt, remorse, and self-recrimination in the absence of any true offense. People who have suffered abuse, trauma, or loss may feel shame and guilt about events over which they had no control.
The model of forgiveness outlined above cannot apply to every individual and every situation.
This can be particularly true when people feel like they should have been able to predict a negative outcome (an example of what is known as the hindsight bias), and thus experience guilt for not altering their actions. Victims of crimes or trauma, for example, might feel that they should have been able to predict what happened, even though the truth is that they had no way of knowing what would take place.
So what else can people do to foster self-forgiveness?
1. Stop rationalizing or justifying what happened.
Facing what you have done or what has happened is the first step toward self-forgiveness. If you have been making excuses in order to make your behaviors seem acceptable, it is time to face up and accept what you have done. This step allows you to take responsibility and admit that what you have done is wrong, unacceptable, or hurtful.
2. Try to understand your motivations.
Before you can forgive yourself, you need understand why you behaved as you did and why you feel guilt over these actions. For example, perhaps you did something that violated your moral convictions. Understanding why you did this can help you decide why forgiving yourself is so important. This step can also help you learn how to avoid such behaviors in the future. It provides insight into the forces that shape your choices and gives you the opportunity to look for more acceptable outlets.
3. Recognize the difference between guilt and shame.
Feeling bad when you do something wrong is completely natural and can serve as a springboard to change. Shame, on the other hand, often involves feelings of worthlessness. Understand that making mistakes that you feel guilty about does not make you a bad person or undermine your intrinsic value. Experiencing remorse is natural and allows you to accept responsibility and move forward. Shame and self-condemnation, on the other hand, will keep you stuck in the past.
4. Focus on building empathy for those you may have harmed.
One of the potential pitfalls of self-forgiveness is that it sometimes decreases empathy for those who have been hurt by your actions. Often, self-forgiveness can lead to greater compassion for others. However, at times, this inward focus may make it more difficult to identify with others. You can avoid this by consciously empathizing with those who have been affected by your actions.
5. Consider how forgiving yourself will help.
What will you gain from forgiving yourself? Just as forgiving others can convey a number of benefits, offering this same forgiveness to yourself can improve your health and well-being. Letting go and offering yourself forgiveness can help boost your feelings of wellness and improve your image of yourself.
6. Pay your dues.
Making amends is an important part of forgiveness, even when the person you are forgiving is yourself. What can you do to make yourself feel like you have earned your own forgiveness? Reparative actions often involve doing something for someone you have wronged.
7. Focus on learning from the experience.
Every single person 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. When faced with a problem with your own actions or feelings, focus on finding something positive in the situation. Yes, you might have messed up, but it was a learning experience that can help you make better choices in the future.
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. In addition to reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, self-forgiveness can also have positive effects on your physical health and relationships.
By Kendra Cherry, Medically reviewed by a board-certified physician