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Updated: Feb 1

- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC

October 14, 2020

Bringing in the science of self-forgiveness can help us on our quest through life.

Self-forgiveness can be a pathway to healing. Some may argue that it can also lead to a “dark side,” enabling reluctance for change (Wohl & Thompson, 2011). For the context of this article, the perspective we are going to explore includes taking personal responsibility rather than a victim stance.

Self-forgiveness is described in research as “a process that leads to the following results: (a) the belief that you have remitted a debt; (b) the end of self-punishing behavior resulting from allowing one’s imperfections to hurt others; (c) the insight that one needs to change, and in changing behavior, you feel better about yourself; and (d) the act of forgiving self allows you to believe in yourself and others again” (Jacinto & Edwards, 2011). This is a process that involves replacing emotions such as shame, self-blame, resentment, anger, guilt, anxiety, regret, grief, and depression with positive emotions towards self, such as “empathy, compassion, gentleness, and love of oneself.”

One can imagine this is not an overnight process, nor is it easy; but the result is definitely worth taking the journey.

Some situations that may entice an individual to exercise self-forgiveness include self-damaging behavior, and behavior that harmed others (Jacinto & Edwards, 2011). Research points to four stages that people work through when they are taking steps to forgive themselves, including: “confronting self, holding yourself responsible, confessing your flaws, and transformation,” (Jacinto & Edwards). “Flanagan’s theory asserts that a person must confess one’s mistake(s) to another person to be able to re-create self, and understand that ‘it is important to know that you cannot forgive yourself until you commit yourself to personal change.’”

Stages of Self-Forgiveness

When we take personal responsibility for the role we’ve played in hurting ourselves or another, we have the opportunity to heal from self-blame, grudges, resentment, and shame. “Self-forgiveness is accomplished when individuals are able to recognize that they are imperfect and due to the imperfection they sometimes fall short of their image of their ideal self,” (Jacinto & Edwards, 2011).

The fact is we are all imperfect human beings and we have opportunities each and every day to be the very best version of ourselves. We can work towards acceptance of our imperfections and “dark side” and continue to try to work towards striving toward our “higher self.”

Jacinto and Edwards (2011) break down the process of forgiveness and self-forgiveness into four therapeutic stages:

Recognition – becoming aware of the need to self-forgive by utilizing self-reflection, usually taking place after a period of rumination. This is often an emotionally painful stage that can include feelings of self-blame, sadness, resentment, anxiety, regret, and sometimes grief.

Responsibility – when we own our role in the hurt that was experienced by self or others, the insight then leads to self-compassion due to our understanding of being imperfect humans. “This awareness of imperfection includes the realization that imperfect beings sometimes do not live up to their highest expectation of themselves.”

Expression – when we accept our emotions and decide to move forward with the intent to go forward. This stage includes having a dialogue that is self-focused, or with another person, expressing the misdeed with the intent of moving past the event.

Re-creating – this stage includes refreshing one’s image of self, encapsulating the learning from the past and more intent for future direction.

“When you give a voice to the thoughts in your head and the emotions in your heart, you may free yourself from some of the burdens. You also imprint in your mind what you learned from your actions and consequences” (Lindberg, 2018). Having the awareness to identify one’s own imperfections and the self-compassion to love one’s self despite these can offer tremendous strides in healing from past hurts.

When we self-forgive, our "feelings, actions, and beliefs about the self become more positive,” (Wohl, DeShea, & Wahkinney, 2008). “For example, people begin to like themselves again, put themselves down less, and believe themselves to be worthy of affection from others.”

The healing process begins when we decide to evolve, and accelerates as we integrate the past with the future. We live, we love, we learn, and we continue to grow.

Living is an ongoing work of art that can be enhanced with a touch of science.


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting



Jacinto, G. A., and Edwards, B. L. (2011). Therapeutic stages of forgiveness and self-forgiveness.

Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment. DOI:10.1080/1543714.2001.531215

Lindberg, S. (2018, July 25). How to forgive yourself. Healthline.

Wohl, M. J. A., and Thompson, A. (2011). A dark side to self-forgiveness: Forgiving the self and

its association with chronic unhealthy behaviour. British Journal of Social Psychology.


Wohl, M. J. A., DeShea, L., and Wahkinney, R. L. (2008). Looking withing: Measuring state self-

forgiveness and its relationship to psychological well-being. Canadian Journal of Behavioural

Science. 40:1-10. DOI:101037/0008-400x.


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