The Pitfall and Profit of Self-Forgiveness

forgive yourself

The ability to forgive oneself for mistakes — large and small — is critical to our well-being, psychological, emotional, and spiritual.

Difficulties with self-forgiveness are linked with all manner of harmful behavior including (but not limited to) suicide, eating and sexual disorders, substance abuse, and depression. The PROBLEM with self-forgiveness is this: for many of us self-forgiveness is code language for an attitude of self-righteousness, emotional arrogance, and a remarkable lack of empathy for the ones we have harmed. That view of self-forgiveness reduces or even eliminates the motivation to make amends and change.

In other words, self-forgiveness may at times serve as a crutch, producing a comforting sense of moral superiority rather than a motivating sense of moral responsibility.

Is there a healthy way to forgive yourself?

Here are some ideas, based on findings from recent research.

1. Don’t get rid of guilt.

Feeling bad when you do something bad is normal, natural and useful. Without it, where would we find the motivation to do better next time? But not all bad feelings are equally beneficial. Shame, which involves negative feelings about the self as a whole (i.e., I’m a bad person, I suck at relationships, I’ll always be alone, I’m worthless, etc.), is closely associate with defensive strategies like denial, avoidance, and even physical violence. Feeling like you’re just a bad person at your core undermines your efforts to change, as change may not even seem possible from this perspective.

On the other hand, guilt involves feeling bad about one’s behavior and its consequences. Research suggests that criminal offenders who recognize that doing bad things does not make them bad people are less likely to continue engaging in criminal activity, and remorse, rather than self-condemnation, has been shown to encourage prosocial behavior. Healthy self-forgiveness therefore seems to involve releasing destructive feelings of shame but maintaining appropriate levels of guilt and remorse to the extent that these emotions help fuel positive change.

2. Own up. 

In theory, self-forgiveness is only relevant if an individual has acknowledged and taken responsibility for the harm done others. Without the recognition of wrongdoing, what would there be to forgive? In practice, however, self-forgiveness is often secret, code language for avoiding culpability. “I’ve forgiven myself. Why are you still mad at me?”

The self-forgiveness formula most conducive to constructive change involves an acknowledgement of both positive and negative aspects of the self. Research suggests, for example, that people who have more balanced, realistic views of themselves are less likely to use counter-productive coping strategies like self-handicapping and self-sabotage than those who either inflate or deflate their self-images. Along similar lines, self-forgiveness is shown to be most helpful when combined with responsibility-taking.

Alone, self-forgiveness does almost nothing to motivate change.

3. Pay your dues.

Making amends to others is a necessary precursor to self-forgiveness. 

In step nine, we correct errors of our past by repaying monies borrowed or stolen, by apologizing for hurtful comments, by admitting to gossip or arrogance or judgment, etc. After we have changed the behavior, we ask for forgiveness with the firm resolution never to engage in those same behaviors again, and more often than not, we ARE forgiven.

But what if we are having a  hard time forgiving ourselves for what we have done?  Just as our friends and family members aren’t able to forgive us until we have made it up to them in some way, forgiving ourselves for the same wrong can’t occur until we feel we’ve earned it. So how do you know when you’ve adequately paid your dues? In some cases, it’s obvious what needs to be done (e.g., if you borrow your friend’s favorite sweater and lose it, you would probably want to find a way to replace it, at minimum), but in other cases the criteria for making amends may be less clear. Receiving forgiveness from others goes a long way towards facilitating self-forgiveness, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide when you’ve done enough to right a wrong. Rather than simply going through the motions of atonement, it may be useful to consider what kinds of reparative behaviors will actually make a difference for others, or for your own personal growth. Sometimes the life-alteration of a living amend is what is called for, rather than a simple apology.

Example: I was rarely present for when my mom needed help; NOW i make a point of regularly going to her house to help with chores too difficult for her. I’ve apologized, sure. But what was necessary for ME TO FORGIVE ME was a lifelong alteration in behavior and priorities.


not sorry

4. Avoid the empathy gap.

Problematically, research has found that self-forgiveness often is coupled with a lack of empathy for the people we have wronged. We stop caring how our victims feel about us or the hurt we have caused… after all, we forgave ourselves for the offense, it’s up to them to “get over it.” Among certain members of AA and NA, this is talked about as “it doesn’t matter how they react or feel about my amends, it only matters that I DID IT.”

This is the absolute OPPOSITE of what our literature says.

For the readiness to take the full consequences of our past acts, and to take responsibility for the well-being of others at the same time, is the very spirit of Step Nine. (Twelve and Twelve, 87)

For many people, as self-forgiveness increases, empathy decreases (and vice versa). This disconnect is understandable: when you’re feeling compassion for the suffering of those you’ve hurt, it’s difficult to also have compassion for the person who caused that suffering, even when that person is YOU. But self-forgiveness is not supposed to be easy, and without incorporating empathy it turns into a form of avoidance.

We must be able to feel WITH the person whom we are apologizing to.

This is compassion.

An amend made without compassion is hot air, a worthless expression of self-serving nonsense, a trite conversation from which neither we nor the people we have harmed benefit.

Let’s not do that!




REMEMBER: Self-forgiveness need not be all-or-nothing. It’s a slow process that may never (and some may argue should never) result in a full release of negative feelings or an exclusively rosy view of oneself. Rather than being a form of self-indulgence, healthy self-forgiveness might be better seen as an act of humility, an honest acknowledgment of our capacity for causing harm as well as our potential for doing good.

Most of the forgoing material is taken from current (2015) psychological research and behavioral analysis. Funny how what the mental health professionals are suggesting is more-or-less exactly what the 12 steps call upon us to do, don’t you think?


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