Last month, I wrote and published an article here on Thrive called “The Power of Forgiveness.” I discussed the emotional and physical benefits of forgiveness, with a focus on how the practice of forgiveness can help people in my field, addiction and recovery. On an emotional level, I observed – supported by evidence provided by subject matter experts – that forgiveness helps free us from the bonds of the past and allows us to move forward in our lives. On a physical level, I observed – again supported by evidence provided by subject matter experts – that forgiveness can decrease risk of heart attack, improve cholesterol levels, reduce chronic pain, and decrease depression, stress, and anxiety.
Before I wrote that article, I knew forgiveness was powerful – but I thought that power was more emotional than physical. The effect of forgiveness on physical health was new to me: I had ideas about the connection between forgiveness and stress, and understood the connection between stress and health, but had no idea forgiveness and, for instance, cholesterol levels were related. As it turns out, they are.
As I wrote that article, I realized there was an element of forgiveness I was leaving out: self-forgiveness. About halfway through writing I knew I needed to write another article on that topic alone. Because as powerful as forgiveness is, in general, I believe that true forgiveness – and all its benefits – begins with self-forgiveness.
It’s related to self-love – which is another powerful topic – and the idea that all true change begins within each of us. If we’re not capable of loving and forgiving ourselves, we may not be capable of honestly loving and forgiving others.
That’s why I sat down to write this article. For people who have trouble forgiving themselves, there are techniques and methods that can help.
What is Self-Forgiveness?
I found a useful definition of self-forgiveness in a scholarly article with an interesting title: “Self-Forgiveness: The Stepchild of Forgiveness Research.” In the article, authors Julie Hall and Frank Fincham define self-forgiveness as:
“A willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself.”
That brings me to an element of self-forgiveness that should be self-evident, yet is nevertheless a challenge for many people: self-forgiveness means accepting that there’s something they’ve done that needs to be forgiven.
In my field of addiction and recovery – and in particular in my work related to community support for people in recovery – this aligns with the idea that in order to heal and move forward, we need to be unflinchingly honest with ourselves. If we’ve committed wrongs, we need to acknowledge them. And if we’ve wronged people in our lives, one way we heal and move forward is by making amends for those wrongs we may have committed.
Both those actions, which are deeply embedded in the recovery process, are dependent on self-forgiveness.
Self-Forgiveness and Forgiving Others: Are They the Same?
Before I discuss the specific steps experts identify as helpful in the self-forgiveness process, I’ll briefly address the difference between forgiving oneself and forgiving others – because they are different, and the difference is relevant.
In a paper published in 1996, psychologist Robert Enright observed:
“Interpersonal forgiveness and self-forgiveness are…distinct in that interpersonal forgiveness does not imply reconciliation with the offender whereas reconciliation with the self is necessary in self-forgiveness.”
That’s relevant in that one common misconception about forgiving others – i.e. the interpersonal forgiveness mentioned in the quote above – is that forgiving someone means you have re-establish a relationship with them.
That’s not true.
As I wrote in my article last month, “Forgiving someone doesn’t mean you have to go hang out with them.”
However, since you are the only you you have, when you forgive yourself, you do have to reconcile with yourself. You don’t really have a choice. You have to live with yourself – i.e. hang out with yourself – for the rest of your life.
That’s what I mean when I say self-forgiveness is the root of forgiveness, and forgiveness is at the root of healing. Self-forgiveness leads to self-reconciliation, which leads to self-love, self-esteem, and self-respect, conditions from which growth and healing flow.
Now – since I’m in the business of helping and healing, I’ll offer an effective and time-tested process for self-forgiveness.
Self-Forgiveness: The Four R’s
You can find the four R’s of self-forgiveness in self-help books, in short blog posts online, and in podcasts on healing and recovery. Don’t let that fool you: the four R’s have a sound basis in psychological theory and research, which means you can find them in peer-reviewed journal articles, as well. That’s why they’ve made their way into so many unexpected places: they’re real, they work, and they’re easy to understand.
Four Steps to Self-Forgiveness
- Recognition. This step requires the person forgiving themselves to understand that at some level, a wrong has been done and harm has been caused. In some cases, the wrong and harm is to another person or people, and in other cases, the wrong and harm is self-inflicted. In both cases the person who has done the harm – the self in self-forgiveness – needs to see the reality of the harm caused, which precedes seeing the need for self-forgiveness.
- Responsibility. This step requires the person forgiving themselves to accept accountability for the wrong or harm committed. The self doing the forgiving understands they’re imperfect. The understanding of imperfection leads to empathy, which lays the emotional groundwork for the self-directed compassion necessary for self-forgiveness.
- Repair.The emotions around self-forgiveness often include intense shame and guilt. The person forgiving themselves needs to enter into a dialogue in order to resolve those emotions. The dialogue may be internal, or the dialogue may be with another person, such as a trusted friend or a counselor. Whether internal or external, the dialogue should focus on understanding the origin of the behavior that needs to be forgiven, the genesis and function of the shame and guilt related to the behavior, and the transformation of negative emotions – i.e. the shame and guilt – into positive healing emotions such as compassion, joy, and, ultimately, love.
- Renewal. The process of self-forgiveness has a goal: the creation of a new state of self and a new self-image. The renewal is fact- and evidence-based. It relies on the step-wise understanding of the forgiveness process. It acknowledges the past – see steps 1 & 2 – and includes a proactive, positive vision of both the present and future selves. The person who self-forgives is empowered to move forward in their lives with the understanding that they’re imperfect and can make mistakes, but those mistakes and the harm they may cause need not be what defines them.
When we examine these steps closely, we see that when they resolve to Step 4, self-forgiveness works forward and backward in time. It allows an individual to heal wounds from the past and gives them the tools to process mistakes and harms that may occur in the future. This makes self-forgiveness eminently practical, because the simple facts of life teach us that no one is perfect, we all have made and will continue to make mistakes, and if we lack an effective internal mechanism to move past these mistakes, then we will spend unnecessary time dealing with persistent emotions such as guilt and shame.
Self-Forgiveness Starts Healing
When I was young, there was a military drill sergeant in my life. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call him an unofficial uncle. A family friend who was around enough for me to remember something said all the time. It seemed like anytime anyone complained about anything, his response was:
“Sounds like a personal problem. Better get right with that.”
I know that sounds a million miles away from self-forgiveness and self-love, but in retrospect, I understand this now as his special way of understanding self-forgiveness. Except it’s the tough-love, military guy version of it. It’s not what I’d say to people in recovery, or people at a delicate place in a healing process related to emotional trauma, yet the content is almost identical. When we encounter obstacles in our lives, we often identify them as external. And sure – some may be external. But quite often, when we resolve our internal conflicts, which often come down to forgiving ourselves so we can love ourselves, those external obstacles appear to resolve themselves.
It’s like they transform before our eyes. They go from being obstacles to simple things we can handle without too much trouble.
But here’s the truth: the obstacles don’t transform. What transforms is us. What transforms is you. When we forgive ourselves, we free ourselves to heal and grow – and in my line of work, that’s the entire goal.