The ability to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and perceived shortcomings is crucial to our psychological and emotional well-being. Those who have a difficult time forgiving themselves are more prone to developing substance abuse issues and eating disorders, along with a variety of other serious, self-destructive problems. Yet while self-forgiveness is crucial to a better quality of life, it can have a dark side. Researchers have noted the positive effects of self-forgiveness – the reduction of guilt and shame, the increased propensity for happiness, and the ability to live in the present moment (rather than dwelling on past missteps). However, research also suggests that in some cases, self-forgiveness may reduce empathy for others, and interfere with a willingness to make amends.
Self-Forgiveness and Personal Responsibility
For the recovering addict or alcoholic, making amends is a vital piece of the healing process. Taking moral responsibility for past harms is essential to moving forward – predominantly because if we fail to take responsibility, we will be inclined to repeat the same indiscretions. Making amends also allows us to move closer towards self-forgiveness. By clearing our side of the street and letting go of the shame that keeps us stuck, we are free to move forward – continue along on our journeys of self-betterment and comprehensive restoration. It is important, however, that we do not use self-forgiveness as a crutch. When we utilize amends to create a comforting sense of self-entitlement and moral righteousness, we are losing the imperative sense of principled responsibility that will motivate us to progress.
There is a healthy and effective way for us to forgive ourselves, and it involves taking responsibility for our actions and behaviors while authentically committing to change. First of all, it is important the we understand the difference between guilt and shame. When we feel shame, we believe at our core that we are bad. Shame involves negative feelings about self as a whole, and leads to self-destructive and defensive behavioral patterns like avoidance, denial, and physical aggression. When we feel shame, we are likely not going to be very motivated to change – in large part because we do not feel as if we are worthy of change. On the other hand, guilt involves feeling badly about a specific action or behavior, and it can prove to be quite beneficial. Feeling badly about the consequences of our actions motivates us to change. Feeling remorse is healthy – self-condemnation is not.
Self-forgiveness only makes sense in the context of acknowledged faults. After all, if we don’t recognize that we screwed up, what would we possibly have to forgive? It is important that we own up to our mistakes, honestly accepting the negative and the positive parts of ourselves. When we take full responsibility for our actions while we practice self-forgiveness, we are more likely to move towards constructive change. Making mistakes is a fundamental part of being human, but this does not mean we can blame a lack of amendment on our intrinsic humanity. Rather than saying, “Ah well, I’m only human,” we can say, “I messed up, because I am human… but I want to be a better human, so I am going to learn from my mistakes moving forward.”
Research has indicated that self-forgiveness can be linked to decreased empathy for others. This connection is understandable; it can be difficult to balance compassion for those you have hurt with compassion for yourself. Self-forgiveness is not necessarily supposed to be easy. It is a practice – a skill – that takes time to hone. Just be sure that you go easy on yourself, and strive for self-improvement while recognizing that you are a human being, fallible and wonderfully imperfect.