The ability to forgive ourselves for mistakes, large and small, is critical to psychological well-being. Difficulties with self-forgiveness are linked with suicide attempts, eating disorders, and alcohol abuse, among other problems.
But self-forgiveness can have a dark side. Research suggests that while it relieves unpleasant feelings like guilt and shame, it may also—in some cases—reduce empathy for others and motivation to make amends. In other words, self-forgiveness may at times serve as a crutch, producing a comforting sense of moral righteousness rather than a motivating sense of moral responsibility.
Is there a healthy way to forgive ourselves? Recent research, described below, can shed some light on this question. (It applies primarily to situations where people have behaved in harmful ways and have not yet taken responsibility or made amends. Importantly, it is not relevant to those who unfairly blame themselves for an event for which they were not responsible, such as being the victim of violence or abuse.)
1. Don’t get rid of guilt. Feeling bad when we do something wrong is natural, and maybe even useful. Without it, where would we find the motivation to do better next time? But not all bad feelings are equally beneficial. Shame, which involves negative feelings about the self as a whole (i.e., feeling worthless), is associated with defensive strategies like denial, avoidance, and even physical violence. Feeling like you’re just a bad person at your core can undermine efforts to change, as change may not even seem possible from this perspective. Guilt, by contrast, involves feeling bad about one’s behavior and its consequences.
Research suggests that criminal offenders who recognize that doing bad things does not make them bad people are less likely to continue engaging in criminal activity. And remorse, rather than self-condemnation, has been shown to encourage prosocial behavior. Healthy self-forgiveness therefore seems to involve releasing destructive feelings of shame and self-condemnation while still experiencing some degree of guilt and remorse. But guilt should only be maintained to the extent that it helps fuel positive change; when it’s excessive or relentless, it can become harmful.
2. Own up. In theory, self-forgiveness is only relevant in the context of transgressions that an individual has acknowledged and taken responsibility for. Without the recognition of wrongdoing, what would there be to forgive? In practice, however, self-forgiveness can sometimes be code for avoiding culpability. The self-forgiveness formula most conducive to constructive change seems to involve an acknowledgement of both positive and negative aspects of the self.
Research suggests, for example, that people who have more balanced, realistic views of themselves are less likely to use counter-productive coping strategies like self-handicapping than those who either inflate or deflate their self-images. Along similar lines, self-forgiveness interventions have been shown to be most helpful when combined with responsibility-taking exercises. Alone, self-forgiveness seems to do little to motivate change.
3. Make amends. Just as we might not forgive someone else until they have made it up to us in some way (although there are of course exceptions), forgiving ourselves may be most likely to stick when we feel like we’ve earned it.
So how do we know when we’ve adequately paid our dues? In some cases, it’s obvious what needs to be done (e.g., if we damage someone’s property, we would repair or replace it), but in other cases the criteria for making amends may be less clear. The best way to find out may be to ask the person you’ve wronged.
Rather than simply going through the motions of atonement, we should consider what kinds of reparative behaviors will actually make a difference for others, and for our own growth. Even some forms of self-punishment may be useful when motivated by a desire for self-improvement rather than anger at the self, though researchers recommend that such punishment be mild and time-limited, and never physically or psychologically harmful. For example, a teenager who has engaged in shoplifting might decide to donate clothes to a homeless shelter.
4. Foster empathy for the victim. Research has found that self-forgiveness is negatively associated with empathy for victims. As self-forgiveness increases, empathy tends to decrease. This disconnect is understandable: it’s difficult to have compassion for oneself while also having compassion for those one has hurt. But self-forgiveness is not supposed to be easy, and without incorporating empathy it can feel empty. Practices like lovingkindness meditation can help us cultivate compassion for ourselves while also offering it to others.
Importantly, self-forgiveness need not be all-or-nothing. It’s a slow process that may not result in a full release of negative feelings or an exclusively rosy view of oneself. Rather than being a form of self-indulgence, self-forgiveness might be better seen as an act of humility, an honest acknowledgment of our capacity for causing harm as well as our potential for doing good.
This article has been revised in response to concerns raised by readers about how it might be misread. We are grateful for the feedback.