Research has shown that those who practice self-forgiveness have better mental and emotional well-being, more positive attitudes and healthier relationships. But in order to practice self-forgiveness, we first need to understand what self-forgiveness means.
Western psychology and contemplative perspectives offer only some of the many views on forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is also explored in various religious traditions and spiritual realms. If you are drawn to any particular religious or spiritual wisdom and teachings, consider the extent to which those traditions may intersect with or complement this discussion.
From the lens of western psychology, self-forgiveness tends to be defined as…
The practice of releasing the resentment or hatred we feel toward ourselves for our own actions.
There may be opportunities for self-forgiveness when we blame ourselves for a mistake we made or regret a certain life decision.
Self-forgiveness is not about condoning or approving of behaviors that have hurt others or ourselves; it’s about fully accepting the reality of what has happened and holding ourselves accountable.
The process of self-forgiveness is independent of seeking forgiveness from others. We can forgive ourselves even when others have not expressed forgiveness to us.
Self-forgiveness can be really challenging, and our ability to forgive ourselves is also correlated with self-compassion. Self-compassion is associated with higher levels of success, productivity, focus and concentration. In comparison, those who are highly self-critical are more likely to experience significant negativity, stress and pessimism.
Though there are some differences among western psychological models, they do share some commonalities regarding the practice of self-forgiveness.
Let’s explore four phases of self-forgiveness, bringing together concepts from both psychological and contemplative teachings.
These self-forgiveness exercises are not necessarily linear, and at times, they may overlap.
Explore what happened and acknowledge it emotionally and cognitively.
Usually, the surfacing of self-blame is the first sign that we have hurt ourselves or someone else or violated our values in some way.
We may experience feelings of guilt, regret or remorse. Part of this self-forgiveness exercise is recognizing these emotions and resisting urges to suppress, ignore or minimize them.
Instead, treat these feelings as important guides and teachers.
This phase involves a grounding or centering practice so that you can engage in the process of self-forgiveness.
Once you come to a more settled place, reflect on the reality of what happened.
You may find that some details are more painful than others, but try to stay with those emotions as best you can. And if it feels too overwhelming, pause and come back to this, honoring where you are in this process. This may be a phase you return to for quite some time.
One aspect of understanding with self-compassion is to honor and remember the context in which those actions occurred.
Strive to describe the entirety of the circumstances in an objective, factual, non-judgmental and self-compassionate way.
Remember that we all hurt others, even the people we love the most. We may not feel deserving of forgiveness, and not allowing forgiveness can be a way of punishing ourselves.
We cannot self-forgive until we have made efforts, as best we can, to make amends and repair the situation.
Muster the courage and willingness to face this truth and repair whatever harm we have caused.
Try to make amends in a way that resonates with the person and is connected to the transgression.
Note: Part of the repair process also means accepting consequences gracefully and without defensiveness.
Someone may not wish to be in our lives anymore or may need time and space away. Honor their needs.
If someone is not open to your amends and repair, get creative about how to achieve this. For example, write a letter that you don’t mail or send a prayer of love and kindness to them.
While it may be harder to forgive ourselves when we haven’t received forgiveness, there is a difference between seeking forgiveness from someone and our process of self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is for ourselves — to be in alignment with ourselves and able to still find our innate goodness even with our harmful actions.
Immediate repair is not the only goal of the practice of self-forgiveness.
How can we learn from our mistakes and make different choices in the future, dedicating ourselves to not causing further suffering?
Committed action may also mean returning to the practice of self-forgiveness again and again.
Self-forgiveness can be a transformative path; woven through these four phases, we embrace the values of:
If you’d like to dig deeper in the practice of self-forgiveness, including a guided meditation and mudra highlighting these four phases, listen to the full podcast episode:
You can also learn more about my coaching practice through this free video series: The Science & Soul of Building Resilience. In this 4-part series you’ll learn:
As a holistic coach, psychologist, mindfulness, meditation & yoga instructor, & Ayurvedic doula I offer personalized paths to growth & healing.