As the idea of forgiveness grows in popularity, so does the idea of forgiving the self. This essay aims to offer guidelines on self-forgiveness in general and then to suggest when, and when not, to engage in self-forgiveness. Let us start with a definition.
Source: Nikki Zalewski_Dreamstime
What Is Self-Forgiveness?
When you forgive yourself, you welcome yourself back into the human community when you have broken your moral standards. When you self-forgive, you try to eliminate resentment toward yourself, but this is not the final goal. More importantly, self-forgiveness includes the offer of self-respect and a reawakened love toward yourself. Further, If you have offended others by your actions, it is good to seek forgiveness from those you offended. This seeking of forgiveness actually is not part of self-forgiving but is associated with it.
Because self-forgiveness can be controversial, let us examine two of those controversies to show you that it is reasonable to go ahead with self-forgiving.
Controversy 1: Some would say that self-forgiveness is impossible because the self-forgiver cannot be both the judge and the defendant in deciding wrongdoing. This is a false analogy because self-forgiveness does not take place in a court of law. Instead, it occurs in the heart and mind of the one who willingly decides to practice self-forgiveness.
Controversy 2: The self-forgiver lacks a clear perspective of what needs to be done to make things right with the self and with others who may have been offended by the actions. Yet, this is not exclusive to self-forgiveness. When forgiving others, how to solve that also can be imprecise, as the people are hurting inside.
If you are convinced that self-forgiveness is a reasonable activity, then we move to the next point.
Where Should I Start in Self-Forgiveness?
If you are new to the idea of forgiving, I usually recommend that people start by first forgiving other people who have hurt them. Why do I suggest this? I have found that we tend to be harder on ourselves than on others, so self-forgiveness can be more difficult than offering forgiveness to other people. I recommend that you start first by forgiving a person with whom you are angry but who is not on the top of the list of people to whom you feel deep resentment. Practice forgiving this person. There are resources for practicing this forgiveness pathway (self-help books such as Forgiveness Is a Choice or The Forgiving Life).
Once you are familiar with the pathway of forgiving others, then try to offer this to yourself by seeing yourself as a member of the human community, offering compassion and gentleness toward yourself, and reawakening that love you deserve to have toward yourself. When I use the word “love” here, I am not referring to an over-indulgent egotism toward the self, but instead to a genuine sense that you have built-in worth despite imperfections and faults.
When Is It Reasonable To Self-Forgive?
If you: a) have a clear understanding of what self-forgiveness is; b) see this as a reasonable activity; and c) have walked the path of forgiving with at least one other person, then it is reasonable to start self-forgiving if you truly conclude that you, indeed, have broken one of your moral standards. You forgive yourself when you know you have done wrong and you feel resentment toward yourself.
When Is It Important Not To Self-Forgive?
At times, people accuse you of wrongdoing, but as you carefully examine what you did, you conclude that the other is overreacting and judging you harshly. At such times, you have to ask yourself carefully: Am I in denial of my fault here, or is this person overdoing the accusation?
After careful thought, if you conclude that you did not break your own moral standards, then practicing self-forgiveness is not recommended. To self-forgive under this circumstance could be giving in to other people’s unreasonable demands. If you practice self-forgiveness every time someone is unhappy with you, this could reinforce another person’s egotism, which is not in your best interest or in that person’s best interest. It is better to stand in the truth that the person is overreacting and, therefore, to resist self-forgiveness.
Self-forgiveness should not be an open invitation to cooperate with others’ false accusations toward you. Self-forgiveness, when properly understood and accurately practiced, is an open invitation to set yourself free of legitimate resentment when you have broken your own standards. Self-forgiveness is a balancing act, appropriate when, in truth, you have done wrong, and inappropriate when you are falsely accused.