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
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 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.
Pamela (Pami) Parker currently serves as a holistic practitioner, coach and teacher. Her intention is to be a compassionate guide to those who choose to experience a healthier, happier and more peaceful way of life.