- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S, NCC
September 3, 2021
"We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we can make peace with ourselves." - Dalai Lama XIV
All humans at one time or another make mistakes. Intentional or not, people are imperfect beings. Sometimes the mistakes cause harm to others, sometimes to ourselves. Most of the time when we realize that we were the cause of harm, feelings of guilt, shame, and even self-resentment can be felt.
"Such self-deprecating emotions can hinder both psychological and physiological well-being" (Wohl & McLaughlin, 2014). Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-resentment can be the crux of internalized depression and internal skewed thinking that causes a person to continue to punish themselves. These are emotions that can last a lifetime and cause fierce anguish. "To this end, people are often urged to abandon self-resentment in the face of acknowledged wrongdoing" (Wohl & McLaughlin).
Months, years, or decades of self-deprecation's destruction and self-punishment are often out of proportion to the original offense. Self-forgiveness is an important process to consider as an instrument to promote health and well-being.
Research describes self-forgiveness as "the result of individuals taking responsibility for their part in a situation that resulted in hurt feelings, physical harm to other people, haboring negative feelings about another, and self-blame" (Jacinto & Edwards, 2011). Just how does one go about finding the path to self-forgiveness?
A review of recent research has identified self-forgiveness as an intentional process which includes: (a) responsibility, (b) remorse, (c) restoration, and (d) renewal, the Four Rs of Genuine Self-Forgiveness. Let us explore this interrelated pathway step by step (Cornish & Wade, 2015) .
The person who makes a mistake recognizes their wrongdoing, or owns the responsibility. While becoming accountable for one's wrongdoing is a large step, it can also invoke difficult emotions and reactions such as remorse, shame and guilt that must be worked through. "Acceptance of responsibility certainly involves a cognitive component that includes recognition of wrongdoing, acknowledgement that one could and should have done things differently, and a realization of one's imperfection" (Cornish & Wade, 2015).
Guilt, shame, and regret are the natural emotions that occur when a person takes responsibility, These negative feelings that are an important part of the path toward self-forgiveness. "Remorse may serve a more positive, prosocial function in that remorse is connected to an increased likelihood of engaging in conciliatory behaviors toward the injured party" which can include one's self (Cornish & Wade, 2015).
Restoration is an active step on the road to self-forgiveness. "In genuine self-forgiveness, the offending person seeks to make amends and repair that which was damaged to the extent possible" (Cornish & Wade, 2015). Once restoration is reached the internal sense of resolution can then be achieved, "paving the way for feelings of self-forgiveness."
At this step of the process the person who made the error can reach an emotional state that includes renewed compassion, acceptance, and respect for oneself. Renewal is not about forgetting the offense, but instead "recognizing one's intrinsic worth as a person; setting aside lingering self-punishment; and approaching oneself with compassion, acceptance, respect and kindness" (Cornish & Wade, 2015).
We reach self-forgiveness when we realize we are imperfect beings and are able to let go of self-blame. It is not a quick process or a pain-free one To take this journey we need to understand and accept all parts of ourselves and continue to strive to be the best version of ourselves each day.
Inappropriate Uses of Self-Forgiveness
I would be remiss to not mention examples of inappropriate use of self-forgiveness which researchers have described. One example is when an individual did not cause harm. We cannot take responsibility for the actions of others. Another example of when self-forgiveness is inappropriate is when self-forgiveness is applied to situations of chronic, unhealthy behaviors which tend to "deter one's readiness to change" (Wohl & McLaughlin, 2014).
One could argue that these descriptions of inappropriate self-forgiveness could be clouded by taking too much responsibility or denial of responsibility. For others, self-forgiveness is vital for emotional and physical health and well-being on one's journey towards inner peace.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting https://www.steppingtowardserenity.org
Cornish, M.A. and Wade, N.G. (2015). A therapeutic model of self-forgiveness with intervention
strategies for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93, 93-103. Retrieved from
Jacinto, G.A. and Edwards, B.L. (2011). Therapeutic stages of forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Journal of
Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 21, 423-427. DOI:10.1080/15433714.15433714.2011.531215.
Nongrum, D. (2020, June 17). Feeling down and out? Here are 10 inspirational quotes by The Dalai
Lama to lighten your load. Retrieved from: https://www.india.com
Wohl, M. A. and McLaughlin, K.J. (2014). Self-forgiveness: The good, the bad, and the ugly. Social and
Personality Psychology Compass, 8, 422-435. DOI 10.1111/spc312119