Psychology of Genuine Self Forgiveness
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 29, 2020 (edited February 9, 2022)
Genuine self-forgiveness is a process of accepting responsibility, working through the emotions, repairing damage, and recommitting to values.
Why are we so mean? We see a wrong and we attack. We judge an occasional mistake as a defining trait. We revolt against others with scanty evidence, hating them for something they are not. We also turn this viciousness inward, attacking ourselves. We call ourselves stupid, incompetent fools, destroying wellbeing with harshness. We shrink before our own cruel inner-critic. We must learn to gracefully accept these enlightening brushes with imperfection and compassionately tend to the scrapes and bruises.
The relationship we have with our own humanness is crucial, influencing wellness for both good and evil. If we can integrate unsavory flaws, we expand. If we condemn or deny, we contract. Self-forgiveness is a path of integration. When we self-forgive, we move forward a little wiser, humbler, and committed to do a little better.
Scholars define self-forgiveness as a process of repair. Mickie Fisher and Julie Exline beautifully wrote, “When people believe they have hurt or offended someone, one potentially adaptive response would be to forgive the self. In an ideal process of self-forgiveness, an offender would accept an appropriate amount of responsibility, experience enough guilt to prompt reparative behaviors and improvement in character, and then release excess guilty feelings that no longer serve a useful function" (2010).
Ideal processes seldom flow smoothly. We prefer a prettier version, disposing of responsibility and hiding personal error in a soft blanket of denial, “if it feels good, it must be right.” We mistakenly confuse loving the sinner (self) as a convenient excuse to ignore the sin. We cripple our futures by building on the shaky sands of denial.
Self-Forgiveness and Accepting Responsibility
Fisher and Exline beautifully express, “when people believe they have hurt or offended someone, one potentially adaptive response would be to forgive the self. In an ideal process of self-forgiveness, an offender would accept an appropriate amount of responsibility, experience enough guilt to prompt reparative behaviors and improvement in character, and then release excess guilty feelings that no longer serve a useful function" (2010).
We can Acknowledge Error Without Drowning in Self Pity
St. Augustine proclaimed we should “love the sinner; but hate the sin.” We can do wrong without being frozen in self-pity. We should not dismiss responsibility with an “I’m sorry but. . .” or “I’m only human,” then continue without change. The thief needs to stop stealing, the abuser needs to stop abusing. Pangs of guilt and shame draw attention to unacceptable action.
While accepting responsibility is difficult, it is necessary for development. Acceptance motivates action to reconcile and commitments to do better.
Genuine self-forgiveness is not a defensive mind game to alleviate guilt. George Valliant suggests in his classic Adaptation to Life that a developmental shift should occur as we mature: “a shift from perceiving instinctual conflicts as shameful and painful to creatively coping with them” (1998, location 4359).
Accepting and repairing is a noble path—an expression of maturity of character. Self-forgiveness moves through a wrong, opens to the emotions (typically guilt and shame), conducts complex evaluations that measure responsibility, and acts to repair. The process restores a clear conscious.
“As fallible human beings, all of us share the impulse to justify ourselves and avoid taking responsibility for any actions that turn out to be harmful, immoral, or stupid” (Tavris and Aronson, 2015, location 71).
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson warn that self-justification “keeps us from letting go of unhealthy habits. It permits the guilty to avoid taking responsibility for their deeds” (location 198). Self-forgiveness without personal responsibility is denial—a counterfeit and a short-cut.
Accidents, Limitations and Humanness
Sometimes, we do the opposite. Instead of self-excusing, we self-condemn. We emotionally attack ourselves over unavoidable happenings, convicting ourselves for a ridiculous expectation of omniscient predictions, “I should have known better.” We beat ourselves over actions where we have no or little choice—the errors of human limitation. We still should make reparations, but prolonged personal examinations are not necessary. We can mitigate the discomfort by mindfully reminding ourselves of the human proneness for error. Not as an excuse but as a realistic expectation; to err is human; “but humans then have a choice between covering up or fessing up” (location 201).
Self-loathing by wallowing in guilt and shame for ordinary missteps of humanness are disproportionate to the crime. They serve little purpose and can do much harm. However, we are not angels. We go afoul, violating espoused virtues. In these cases, genuine self-forgiveness is needed, not the pseudo-self-forgiveness of prodding positive affect when correction and recommitment is necessary.
The functional act of self-forgiveness is repairing wrongs and reconciling with alienated victims—including ourselves; we’re always one of the impacted victims.
Actions violating personal values are unique—the self is the offender and the offended. The act internally divides and estranges. We are at odds with our selves. The internal conflict—a cognitive dissonance—severs the united self into competing narratives. Beliefs and acts splinter to opposite side of a gulf. Self-forgiveness restores wholeness.
Genuine self-forgiveness requires more than silencing the inner-critic. Self-forgiveness is aided by compassion, working through the shame of imperfection and adapting to a more complex understanding of self. “Self-compassion is the antidote to shame” (David, 2016, location 911). Paul Gilbert and Choden describe compassion as “being sensitive to the suffering of self and others with a deep commitment to try to prevent and heal.” (Gilbert and Choden, 2013, p. xxv).
Self-forgiveness seen through compassion softens the judgments. We honor the end-state of a clear conscious without condoning or pardoning wrongs (Woodyatt, Wenzel, & Ferber 2017). We should travel through—not around—guilt and shame, without denying, minimizing or justifying hurtful actions.
Emotional Response to Error
The homeostatic balance of wellness occasionally shifts, and we sputter in chaotic upheaval. We feel the disorganization and react to regain footing. Unhealthy reactions borrow from the future, defensively escaping immediate emotions with denial, blaming or justification; other responses magnify pain—self-condemnation or self-sabotage.
For wellness, we must expertly balance the present with the future, finding solutions that are compassionately sensitive to the present while still honoring potential impact on others and ourselves in the future.
Immediate gratification has a tremendous pull. The reward is immediate and reinforcing. Research confirms there is a negative correlation between taking personal responsibility and positive self-regard, explaining why these growth inhibiting short-cuts are so attractive, taking responsibility is not pleasant.
Wellness requires severing the strength of the negative associations. Zenon Szablowinski recognized this critical paradox in his 2012 essay on self-forgiveness. “An inability to forgive oneself or others. . . results in the strongest and most negative psychological conditions.” He continues, “Left unchecked, such negative energies can slowly erode the psychological and spiritual well-being of victim and offender alike. . .forgiveness of others or of oneself can calm hurt and bring inner peace; it can also. . . encourage abuses to continue” (2012).
Empirical evidence suggest that this paradox has an escape. Genuine self-forgiveness weakens the link between accepting personal responsibility and negative affect (Griffin et al., 2018).
Guilt, Shame and Self Forgiveness
Guilt and shame are prominent players in this drama. They have pro-social qualities. Woodyatt, Wenzel and Ferber wrote that, “Negative effect such as remorse, shame and guilt can act as gauges of social threat, alerting the person that repair needs to be made”(2017).
Social emotions are powerful disrupters. They invade and destroy or teach and correct. Failure to forgive when appropriate is detrimental to relationships with others and ourselves. However, allowing pro-social emotions to run amok burdens confidence with the constant badgering from the inner critic. Unchecked, these self-condemnations suppress action and lead to depression and anxiety disorders.
Shame and guilt have a similar theme but are fundamentally different. Guilt is centered in an erroneous act. We experience guilt over an action. I may feel guilty after yelling at my child. I disproportionally react to the child’s misbehavior and misbehaved myself. I feel guilty over my wrong.
Shame focuses on a trait—our very being. Instead of feeling guilty over the act of yelling at my child, I condemn my awfulness as a parent. These spiteful ruminations of shame inflict damage on our soul, destroying motivations to change into hopeless despair. We recreate childhood trauma, integrating the scornful parent into our psyche, and we continue the emotional abuse. We call ourselves stupid, selfish, and thoughtless for common errors of humanity. These damning judgements failed to develop us when we were children and will continue to inhibit growth now that we are adults.
Both guilt and shame are capable of igniting self-condemnation—a useless judgement. In our shame, we hide, cover our flaws to avoid judgment. Brené Brown explains, “Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes” (2010, location 279).
Allowing discomforting feelings to exist is difficult. Daniel Siegel believes, like Brené Brown, that we are inclined to silence shameful feelings. He taught that taking personal responsibility for the actions producing the shame is essential for adapting, “if we own the truth of what has happened, not only can we begin to repair the damage. . .we can also actually decrease the intensity of such events and the frequency with which they occur” (2010, location 605).
We develop pattern responses to combat shame and guilt. Often these patterns are shortcuts that sooth the emotions without solving the trigger. We deny responsibility or magnify the judgement. In Beating the Blues, Michael Thase wrote, “It is, however, much easier to do nothing and wallow in your automatic responses of anxiety, fear, or shame, which flood your system with harmful stress (fight or flight) hormones” (2004, p.58).
No matter the flavor of our mistake, we should take appropriate responsibility, expose the injustice, repair and forgive ourselves. We can emotionally heal and self-forgive without distancing from violations and mistakes.
Scholars refer to the counterfeit version of self-forgiveness as Pseudo-self-forgiveness. This sneaky version bolsters self-esteem, calms hurts and brings inner-peace—at least temporarily. We forgive ourselves by down-playing the wrongs. Pseudo-self-forgiveness self-excuses and minimize the sin to alleviate discomfort (Griffin et al., 2018). We let ourselves off the hook, defending the wrong, and redirecting the blame.
Pseudo self-forgiveness has serious side-effects. By mitigating responsibility, we release emotions that motivate psychological adapting, losing a motivational spark to curtail future abuse and crimes. The “I’m sorry but . . .” places blame on the victim. This isn’t an apology. The use of the word ‘sorry’ is disguised to sound remorseful but designed to absolves responsibility.
Research has repeatedly found that pseudo self-forgivers “were less empathetic and showed less emotional concern for their victim and were more likely to be angry at their victim, blame the victim, or claim the victim overreacted” (Woodyatt, L., Wenzel, M., & Ferber, M. 2017). By defusing pro-social emotions through denial and justification, we lose valuable resources for adapting to complex social environments.
The other option cited by scholars is genuine self forgiveness. Genuine Self-forgiveness also calm hurts and creates inner peace, bridging the divided self, not by making exceptions for values violated but by reaffirming the values and reconciling with those wronged. This path starts with personal responsibility. The self-forgiver begins a moral transformation. They accept their flaw and determine to do better. Genuine self-forgiveness is a moral repair strategy (Griffin et al., 2018).
Woodyatt, Wenzel, & Ferber explain, “Genuine self-forgiveness is more consistent with eudaimonic perspective of well-being. . . not determined by the presence of positive affect and the absence of negative affect.” They continue, “Instead well-being denoted a person’s experience as being fully functioning. . .showing personal growth towards purpose, virtue, character development, and becoming their ‘true self.’”
The eudaimonic approach focuses on growth rather than merely settling for subjective happiness (2017). Hall and Fincham shared this definition, “A willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward self” (2008).
In another study, researchers found that criminal offenders that integrated personal responsibility “through the restoration of their social identity and moral integrity offenders would arrive at a state of positive self-regard” (Wenzel, Woodyatt, & Hedrick 2012). “Rather than bypassing the threat to social-moral identity, individuals can reinforce their identity through recommitment to shared values, goals, and beliefs” (Woodyatt, Wenzel, & Ferber 2017).
A 2017 study examined 177 peer reviewed articles on self-forgiveness to formulate an agreed upon definition. The researchers identified five distinct key components of self-forgiveness: reconciliation, acceptance, accountability, human connectedness, and commitment to change (Webb et al. 2017). Genuine self forgiveness requires “reconciliation with the self, acceptance of all aspects of the self, accountability for the wrong-doing, connection with the human community and a genuine effort to change” (2017).
Acknowledging imperfection burdens the psyche, demanding a solution. We can mitigate this weight by gaining insight into the greater human condition, recognizing that each person is a small part of a community of imperfect others.
Our imperfection shrinks when we viewed it from a larger context (Onody et al. 2020). Accepting that everyone is imperfect doesn’t lessen the impact on others, personal responsibility acknowledges this. We see both the insignificance and significance of our behavior (Cleare, Gumley, & O'Connor 2019).
The self-forgiver is challenged to assimilate the negative experiences into a modified self-concept, reframing their perspective of self in a positive light not withstanding the flaws of imperfection. Our complexity of thought can achieve wonders, creatively integrating an “imperfect me” autobiographical narrative.
While Fisher and Exline’s path through error, emotions and repair seems daunting, we can stumble through this process. With persistence, genuine self-forgiveness becomes habit and then character. We may need assistance to integrate imperfection into our on-going narratives. Soon we mature and the unsavory flaws become honored small pricks that push us forward, flexibly adjusting to new experience. Self-forgiveness becomes a part of our daily practice and with a clear conscious, we compassionately build a life of character.
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