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More PsychNotes: Emotions

When to Forgive Yourself: Self-forgiveness and Responsibility
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Self-forgiveness has been shown to contribute to physical health and mental well-being (Davis, et al., 2015). In other words, forgiving yourself is vital to your health. Yet, many people have trouble letting go of mistakes and transgressions they have made.

On the other hand, as with many psychological concepts and research, what is psychologically healthy can vary depending on the situation. For instance, self-forgiveness may be psychologically harmful for addicts and narcissists who forgive themselves too easily. In such cases self-forgiveness is used as a form of denial which prevents a person from resolving the problem and making necessary changes. Instead, they may need to take more responsibility for the problem by acknowledging it more thoroughly.

Self-forgiveness also may not be psychologically healthy if you have not actually committed an offense. Some people, especially those with depression or anxiety, obsess about perceived misdeeds that others wouldn't even give a second thought to. If that is the case, you don't want to forgive yourself because it implies you have done something wrong which reinforces that type of thinking. Instead, you want to focus on changing the thinking itself. For instance, once, when I was worried about having called someone the wrong name, I said to myself, “If he's still thinking about it as long as I am, then he has a bigger problem than me. Let it go.” So, consider, was there a transgression? Would anyone else consider that you did something wrong?

When you have done something wrong, the process of self-forgiveness may take the same steps as grief because when we make mistakes or hurt others, even unintentionally, we experience an emotional loss. That loss may be the impact to our self-concept or it could be the damage to a relationship. But since we experience loss, to achieve self-forgiveness we may need to work through the stages of grief:

1) Acknowledge. Recognize what you did and take responsibility for it. Acknowledging does not mean berating yourself for it but accepting the fact of what you did.

2) Accept emotions. By taking responsibility you may feel some anger, shame, or guilt. These feelings can be healthy emotions giving you direction and helping you to determine what you need to do to make changes or amends. However, do not dwell on the emotions themselves but use them for the information provided.

3) Regret. Even once you have corrected the problem, you may still feel some remorse about the situation. At this point you may need to remind yourself of what you have done to resolve the problem rather than dwell on the mistake itself: Did you own the mistake or transgression? Did you learn from it? If possible, did you make amends?

4) Acceptance. Self-forgiveness isn't just about feeling better. It is about taking responsibility. But then letting it go. Once you have apologized, corrected your mistake, and/or made amends, you need to recognize you are an imperfect human being and that is okay. Everyone makes mistakes and sometimes we cause distress or harm to someone else. However, if we take responsibility for the mistake or transgression and try to correct the problem then we need to forgive ourselves. Don't hold on to the regret, guilt, or shame.

Davis, D.E., Ho, M.Y., Griffin, B.J., Bell, C., Hook, J.N., Van Tongeren, D.R., DeBlaere, C., Worthington, E.L. and Westbrook, C.J. (2015). Forgiving the Self and Physical and Mental Health Correlates: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 329 –335. DOI: 10.1037/cou0000063

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