A Gift to You: Self-Forgiveness

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Dr Ottilia Brown

A Gift to You: Self-Forgiveness

Posted 02 Mar 2019

Mind & Body Health

Dr. Ottilia Brown

A Gift to You: Self-Forgiveness

‘Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself’ Rumi

In my last blog I focused on the act of forgiving others. In my clinical practice and personal quest for integration, I am becoming more and more aware of the power of self-forgiveness. I have noticed that even when people can forgive others, it is self-forgiveness which often presents the stuck point. Self-forgiveness for the purposes of this blog refers to forgiving the self for wrongs done to others as well as wrongs done to the self. It is about getting back to values-based living.

When we violate our core values, we experience a barrage of negative emotions such as shame, guilt, disappointment and regret. Living in a state of shame and guilt negatively affects mental and physical health and general happiness. Self-forgiveness is also about restoring a positive sense of self as self-esteem and self-acceptance may be affected when we wrong ourselves or others.  Self-forgiveness is an important step in healing. And although it does not equate to healing and is most certainly not a magic bullet for self-regard, it is a significant and essential part of the healing journey. Why then is self-forgiveness so difficult for us? Let’s examine some of the barriers to self-forgiveness:

  • ‘If I forgive myself, I am letting myself off the hook’. This belief suggests that remaining in a position of self-judgement and practising self-blame is the best way to prevent re-offending. Just as forgiveness is not about excusing the bad behaviour of the transgressor, self-forgiveness is not about having a free pass to perpetrate the same to self and others again. It is about feeling remorse, accepting responsibility, making a concerted effort not to repeat the behaviour and reflecting on the lessons learned about self.
  • ‘I do not deserve forgiveness for what I have done’. Lack of self-forgiveness is often perpetuated by the emotions of shame and guilt and thoughts of self-recrimination. This is a reciprocal pattern in that this lack of self-forgiveness perpetuates guilt and shame which inevitably negatively affects self-esteem. The judging self, which is necessary for us to monitor inappropriate behaviour, can also keep us stuck when we are needing to let go and move forward with the resolve to do better.
  • ‘I can’t forgive myself because the person I have wronged does not want to speak to me anymore’. Remember that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Reconciliation refers to the restoration of relationships. While forgiveness is essential for reconciliation, it is possible to forgive yourself even when the other person does not want to reconcile with you or forgive you. There are many ways in which you can make retribution if access to the person wronged is not possible. This could include taking time to fully understand how you have wronged the individual, charitable deeds, a resolve to do better with others, and a commitment to increased awareness of self and how your actions affect those around you. 

The process of self-forgiveness is not an easy one. The ‘how’ can vary from person to person. Some suggestions on how to engage in this process include:

  • Take full stock of what it is you are forgiving yourself for. Writing it down can be helpful in many ways. This writing process can help you identify the language you are using and ascertain how harsh and critical you are being towards yourself. Identifying the language can help with identifying self-blame, self-recrimination, self-hatred, anger and so forth.
  • Find healthy ways to express anger towards and disappointment in the self. Once again writing can be a powerful tool. Physical exercise is always a helpful strategy for helping to rid anger and disappointment. If writing is particularly difficult, sending yourself a few voice notes or talking out loud when alone can also be helpful.
  • Check whether the negative language you were using in the original write-up has changed. When there has been sufficient expression of the negative emotion and a true understanding exists of the impact of perpetration on self or other, it may be helpful to write about the incident again and to notice if there is a decrease in negative self-talk this time round. If there isn’t a reduction, it is important to evaluate why you are choosing to stay entrenched in the negative. Self-compassion is an essential ingredient in creating the space and permission to forgive the self.
  • Find ways to let go. This is where appropriate language that moves away from self-blame and towards self-understanding and self-acceptance plays a significant role. Letting go can take many forms. It can include a sincere apology to self or other. It can also include a statement and resolution about what will be done differently moving forward. The latter should include specific actions and should be expressed explicitly to self or other. If the apology is to other, it may be helpful to also ask how the person would like things to be different moving forward. If there is no opportunity for resolution with other, there could instead be a resolve to overhaul behaviour in general and to commit to new ways of being.

Remember that forgiveness is a choice. Likewise, self-blame and self-recrimination is a choice. The latter results in suffering and the former provides a platform for healing and an opportunity for building a new relationship with self. This is where self-forgiveness takes on a different meaning to forgiving others and being forgiven by others.

Self-forgiveness does in fact result in a reconciliation with self that improves self-acceptance and self-esteem. Self-forgiveness has powerful and lasting healing benefits that can liberate us from perpetual guilt and shame and open avenues for learning and growth previously stifled by recrimination and unforgiveness.

Wishing you well as we continue to strive to be the best we can be!


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3 people have commented this blog.

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Chris says:

1 week 1 day ago
So many of us, myself included, need to learn how to do this better.
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

1 week 1 day ago
Dear Chris. Thank you for your comment. Yes I agree, this is a tough one. But oh so worth and it and so liberating on the days we succeed. Keep trying. Wishing you well, Ottilia

Fiona_1974 says:

1 week 3 days ago
Dear Dr Ottilia Thank you for all of the helpful advice you post here. I found your blogs by accident while looking for something else on this site, and I've read all of your contributions over and over because they don't just offer a one dimensional view, they actually provide strategies and techniques on how to achieve what you are talking about. Very thankful for your help. Fiona
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

1 week 1 day ago
Dear Fiona. Thank you so much for your positive feedback. I must apologise, I posted a response from my cell phone and it would seem it never posted. I am so pleased that you have found the blogs helpful Fiona. Hoping the strategies and techniques can help you achieve your personal growth goals. Wishing you well on your journey, Ottilia

A.H says:

1 week 5 days ago
Years of self blame have passed and I never realized how damaging it is for one's mental health, until someone made me realize it recently.. thankfully.. I guess reaching to this realization as a first step is probably as important as working on self forgiveness, the latter probably more difficult to achieve.. Great article, thank you for sharing. A.H.
Dr Ottilia Brown

Dr Ottilia Brown says:

1 week 4 days ago
Dear A.H. Thank you for your comment and positive feedback. Yes self-blame can be very damaging to one's mental health. As with anything that requires change, self-awareness is key. I am so pleased that you managed to achieve this awareness and that this has been positive for you. Self-forgiveness would definitely be an important step on your healing journey. Wishing you well, Ottilia

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