Monday, January 14, 2013


Self-forgiveness is important for emotional health, and yet it is elusive. Some of the most forgiving people I know—forgiving when it comes to others who have hurt them or let them down—carry a heavy weight of guilt and shame over their own perceived wrongs.

Even if not everyone finds it harder to forgive themselves than to forgive others, it seems clear that what it takes to forgive oneself is different from what it takes to forgive others. But I think it may be true that genuine self-forgiveness is uniquely difficult to achieve.

I want to offer some thoughts here about self-forgiveness--what it is, what it isn't, and what impedements stand in the way of it--that might (I hope) be helpful for those who find it hard to do. My thinking is deeply shaped by my faith, but I want to offer an account of self-forgiveness here that brackets the more explicitly religious notions that feature in my own full understanding. Those who have any familiarity with Christian teachings about forgiveness, especially within the Lutheran tradition, will nevertheless see the imprint of those teachings on what I have to say.

So: I think self-forgiveness is distinctively elusive, perhaps harder for most of us to realize than forgiveness of others. Some might raise their eyes skeptically at this, thinking about all those people who let themselves off the hook for every failing while moralizing righteously about everyone else. But while there are lots of people like that, I don't think they're practicins self-forgiveness. Genuine self-forgiveness needs to be clearly distinguished from other self-directed attitudes that might be confused with it. Specifically, the starting point for self-forgiveness is honest acknowledgement of the scope and severity of one’s own wrongdoing. Forgiveness is a response to a wrong, and so cannot occur in the absence of acknowledging this wrong.

Many people seek to escape feelings of guilt and shame, not by forgiving themselves for wrongs acknowledged, but by denying or ignoring the wrongs. Sometimes we simply pretend that we have done no wrong—like playing a role. When we can’t do this, we rationalize and justify our behaviors or shift the blame to someone else. And then there are all the "misdirection" techniques: most notably, we focus our attention outward to the sins of our neighbors, and by responding to those sins with sufficient indignation we manage to distract ourselves from all the ways in which we do similar things.

However it’s done, the failure to take responsibility for our own wrongs is a very different thing from self-forgiveness. We can’t forgive ourselves for a wrong done if we haven’t admitted that we did it and that it was wrong. Self-forgiveness thus begins with a repudiation of the act we are forgiving ourselves for.

Self-deception and misdirection not only preclude self-forgiveness but are problematic in their own right. To pretend you have never needlessly hurt another person is, to put it bluntly, to live a lie. To move through life as if your own actions never violate your deepest values is to move through life with an ongoing inner dissonance. It is to be out of touch with reality.

Why do so many of us choose to live in this kind of denial? We do it because the only alternative we see is shouldering a frightening burden of guilt and shame. We want to be happy. But we can’t be happy if we see ourselves as unworthy of happiness—as warranting misery. We cannot be happy if we think that the fitting attitude to have towards ourselves, given our behavior, is loathing.

Of course, most of us acknowledge that some wrongs can be repaired, our guilt washed away by the proper compensation. But while washing away the “stain” of wrongdoing through appropriate reparations might sometimes be possible, some harms are beyond our power to repair. Furthermore, even if harms can be repaired, there are so many ways (large and small) in which we fall short every day that, absent forgiveness, the call for reparations threatens to be overwhelming. And if our limitations lead us to go wrong in all sorts of little ways every day, what chance do we have of not going wrong with respect to the reparations? Expecting people to repair every past wrong amounts to responding to those who have failed to handle an initial set of requirements by heaping even more on them.

In short, if we acknowledge our own wrongs fully, we risk imposing conditions on our own acceptability that may be too much to bear. So, we see ourselves as forced to choose between a life of denial and a life of miserable self-flagellation. Denial seems better. But such denial—and the pretense of self-approval that comes with it—is not self-forgiveness.

Self-forgiveness is a third alternative. It is the alternative of taking honest responsibility for our wrongs without beating ourselves up, without regarding ourselves as unworthy of happiness or love, without carrying with us a soul-crushing burden of guilt and shame.

Since this alternative presupposes taking honest and conscious responsibility for our wrongs, self-forgiveness involves something that is not typically required in the case of forgiving others. Typically, when others wrong us, we feel the wrong immediately. As the victim of the wrong, what we experience is the pain of being violated, not the prospect of guilt. And so we have a direct sense of wrongness without the circumstances that trigger denial-inducing defense mechanisms.

But in the case of our own wrongs, we need to take active steps to resist the defense-mechanisms and acknowledge the wrong. In other words, a necessary condition for self-forgiveness—a first step, if you will—is deliberate confession. We must formulate in clear terms a truth we are often prone to hide from: “I did this thing. This thing was wrong. I am responsible for this wrong.” Until we take this confessional step, we can only have a cheap imitation of self-forgiveness, a sense of self-acceptance based on pretense and distraction rather than on truth.

But this confessional step, while necessary for self-forgiveness, is hardly sufficient. What else do we need?

Most obviously, the capacity to forgive ourselves is bound up with our capacity to forgive others. If we refuse to forgive others we are implicitly embracing the idea that someone’s wrongdoing puts them outside the proper scope of our good will, outside the reach of our embrace. And if we think this true about wrongdoing in general, then we’ll think it true of our own wrongdoing. And so, acknowledging our own wrongdoing will mean for us that we are unworthy of our own good will, our own embrace. In short, for those who generally can’t or don’t forgive, confession isn’t a first step towards wholeness but a leap straight into self-loathing.

So, a general capacity and willingness to forgive is necessary if we want to forgive ourselves. But again it’s not sufficient. I know many people who quickly and easily forgive those who have hurt them but who, when it comes to their own failings, can’t stop beating themselves up.

Why is that? There are, I think, at least two reasons. First, when you hurt me I am the aggrieved party. If I choose to set aside my hurt, to not hold it against you, then that is my right. In effect, because I am the one who was harmed, the hurt is mine to do with as I will. And so I have the authority to set it aside and say, “This won’t come between us. This will not exclude you from my good will or my embrace.” But when I hurt you, the hurt is yours. While you may have the right to set it aside, I have no such right. Since I am not the aggrieved party, I lack the authority to let myself off the hook.

This means that often, when we confess our wrongs, we don’t feel entitled to forgive ourselves until we have been forgiven by those we have wronged—until we have received their absolution. If they don’t set aside the wrong (perhaps because they can’t), then neither do we.

That is part of why so many of us find it so difficult to forgive ourselves, and I will return to this piece of the puzzle in a moment. But there is a second piece as well, one that stands in tension with the first. Suppose I’ve done you some significant wrong, and suppose you do explicitly forgive me. I may still find it hard to forgive myself. Why is that?

Here’s the problem: What you are setting aside in forgiving me isn’t the same as what I need to set aside. In order for you to forgive me, what you must set aside is the hurt that stands between us--your hurt. To forgive myself, what I need to set aside is my guilt.

Guilt involves a sense of debt—an inner urge to make something right, to fix what you have broken. If you erase a debt I owe you, that’s a magnanimous gesture. It comes from a position of moral authority. But for me to accept such a gesture, I have to relinquish something—not moral authority, which I’ve already lost by committing the wrong, but some lingering shadow of it. So long as I continue to see myself as owing you, I reserve for myself a pathway to making it right through my own efforts—by paying off the debt. To forgive myself is to genuinely give up on the idea of restoration coming about through my own works, to forego ever seeing this restoration as earned.

Forgiving others, in other words, is the exercise of a certain kind of power. Forgiving myself, by contrast, is a kind of abdication. It’s about releasing control. I give up on trying to retroactively repair my past self, trying to make myself fully worthy of happiness and love. I concede that I am too small and too flawed to fix every harm I’ve done. And I compassionately embrace myself anyway.

None of this means that when we forgive ourselves we ought not to make amends for wrongs done. Here is where I think the answer to the first problem—the idea that we have no right to forgive ourselves for harms we’ve caused to others—can be resolved. I think this problem is rooted in a failure to understand what self-forgiveness really is. Others who have been hurt by us may have a claim on reparations. They don’t have a claim on our self-loathing.

Let’s put this another way. Those who have been harmed by us can, within reason, legitimately expect us to make amends, and self-forgiveness isn’t about refusing to do so. What it’s about, rather, is this: When we do make amends, it isn’t in order to earn the right to be happy or loved or at peace. Self-forgiveness is about letting go of the idea that our acceptability to ourselves, our right to pursue joy and receive love, depends on successfully expiating our sins. And it is therefore about letting go of any effort to make our experience of joy and love contingent on how well we fix our past wrongs. It is about regarding joy and love as unearned gifts, and then receiving them on those terms--in a spirit of gratitude, rather than as payment due.

Paradoxically, we may find that we are better able to repair past harms and avoid future ones if the motive is love for our neighbor rather than the effort to expiate and avoid guilt. We see where we have caused hurt and, out of compassion, reach out to heal the hurt. This is a far cry from beating ourselves up about it…and then trying to fix the hurt so as to earn back the right to be happy. Self-forgiveness frees us from this inward fixation on ourselves, on our own merits, allowing us to love more freely and more fully.

Put another way, it may well be the case, ironically, that we owe it to the victims of our wrongs to forgive ourselves, so that when we make it up to them it is for their sakes rather than our own.


  1. "Many people seek to escape feelings of guilt and shame"

    Your comment on shame reminds me of something Daniel Defoe once said about being too ashamed to ask forgiveness.
    Anyway, your post makes me think. Thanks

  2. To some extent, this asymmetry of self-forgiveness vs other-forgiveness is perfectly honorable. The world can only work if we hold ourselves to higher standards than we hold others to.

    One more point is that once you fully understand your own wrongs and failings, there is simply no forgiveness possible. You have set processes in motion that can't be repaired or taken back or solved. There is no going back. As you say, one has to stop the cycle somehow, by remaining committed to life and action and the future, rather than getting bogged down in the past. One could call this forgiveness, but perhaps another word would serve better, like a postitive attitude, or working out one's neuroses, or mindfulness, etc..

    1. Just out of curiosity, why do you prefer a different term than "forgiveness" to describe this decision not to get "bogged down" in past failures but instead to move forward? Your remark that forvieness is simply not possible once you fully acknowledge and appreciate your wrongs--once you fully see that you have initiated things "that can't be repaired or taken back or solved"--suggests to me that you want to reserve the term "forgiveness" for something that is at odds with such acknowledgment. My own instinct is that as soon as we view forgiveness as at odds with such acknowledgment we misconstrue it, precisely because forgiveness is a response TO wrongs acknowledged.

      I don't want to get into a dispute that is merely verbal, but in order to avoid merely verbal disputes it is helpful to better understand what connotations terms have to people emerging out of a different context than my own.

  3. A very though provoking post. Have you ever read Living with One's Past, by Norman S. Care? In that book, he seems to recognize that there are some people, at least, who simply don't have the capacity to be a thorough-going "in control agent". That is, there are some people who innately, and/or circumstance bound, lack enough strength to lead a mostly respectable life.

    1. Alex,

      I haven't read the book. What I will say is that I don't think many of us have the capacity to be "in control agents" all the time, and none of us have the capacity to do it on our own, without the right kind of nurture and support structure. More significantly, I think that the cultivation of our capacity for compassion and justice requires that we give up being "in control." Moral growth--growing to be more loving and more fair than we are at present--requires that we be guided by something greater than we are. And so it requires that we relinquish control to that something greater. In fact, I think one helpful way to define "God" is as that reality Who transcends us and Who, when we release ourselves to Him, can reliably move us towards a more loving and compassionate engagement with the world.

      But I say this with considerable trepidation, because any act of release to something beyond us, even if we call it "God," is ripe for exploitation, and an easy path towards abdicating responsibility for our lives in a way that can lead people to do terrible things because "God told them to do it." And I don't want to endorse any such thing.

      In fact, I think I will compose a blog post exploring these dangers.

  4. Eric,

    There are I think two senses of “forgive” and those who find it difficult to forgive themselves in the second sense understand the sinful character of others better which makes it easy to forgive them in the first sense.

    The first sense I have in mind is the common sense: To not hate the ones who wronged one, to not expect amends from them nor wish them evil, to let them off he hook, to forget about the wrong they did. It’s not too difficult to forgive others or to forgive oneself in that sense. Indeed, universalists never doubt or feel that God does not forgive them, or that the evils they did made them less worthy of God’s love.

    The second sense is about one’s response to one’s own sinning. One feels the heavy weight of one’s past sins. So much so that if one could change the past one would much rather remove from one’s past one’s sins than one’s sufferings. But the reason for that weight is not the sin one has committed but one’s depravity in committing it *and* the realization that one would still commit the same sin, i.e. that one’s depravity is still here. It’s not the weight of the memory of past sin, but the weight of the realization of present sinfulness. The lack of forgiveness in that second sense is the lack of repentance – the lack “metanoia” in the original greek, the lack of “change of mind”. To forgive oneself in that second sense is to outgrow one’s evil character. And that is quite difficult.

    How does one outgrow one’s evil character? There are various answers given. One that is expressed in the body of Christ’s teaching in the Gospels, and also reflects everybody’s experience of life is good works. By doing good one changes oneself for the better. That’s a basic and obvious fact about the human condition. Other answers, perhaps oriented in giving oneself the strength for doing good, can be of an active or of a passive nature. The active path, perhaps best represented in the Eastern or monastic traditions, is that of prayer, poverty, humility, and other spiritual exercises. The passive path you mention in the OP is that of “letting go”, of abandoning oneself in God’s hands. I have no doubt that both ways are right, and perhaps the best is to combine them both. But all ways I say lead to good works. A good life expresses a good heart the way light expresses light. The way that there is light wherever a light a present, there are good works wherever a good heart is present.

    Perhaps an analogy from the lighting of a fire comes handy: The human heart is like a heap of wood meant to burn. The fire is lighted either by touching it with an external fire, or by the heat produced by the friction of internal work, or both. But once the fire starts and the heart burns it produces heat. And that heat both strengthens the fire and heats the room around it.