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A painting of a young woman with blonde hair and a white scarf, standing against a mountainous landscape with a church spire in the distance.

Love’s Melancholy (1866) by Constant Mayer. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

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Guide

How to forgive yourself

Finding it hard to move past a hurtful mistake? With these steps toward repair and renewal, you can do and feel better

Love’s Melancholy (1866) by Constant Mayer. Courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago

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Nathaniel Wade

is professor in psychology at Iowa State University. He is interested in the psychology of forgiveness and religion, particularly as they are applied in counselling and therapy settings. He lives in Ames, Iowa.

Marilyn Cornish

is associate professor and director of training for the counselling psychology PhD programme at Auburn University in Alabama. She researches forgiveness and self-forgiveness in relationships, as well as ways to reduce the stigma of seeking psychological help.

Edited by Matt Huston

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Need to know

After several months of therapy, Joe shared that he carried a burden he was hesitant to talk about. With some encouragement, he admitted that he had been treating his four-year-old daughter terribly. He described how typical events such as trying to get his daughter ready for daycare had triggered his anger, leading him to handle her roughly – like grabbing her arm or yelling at her. Joe shared other behaviours that he was ashamed of, such as losing his cool and just walking away while she was crying in the bathtub. Although he was often a supportive and loving father, Joe (whose name, along with some other details, have been altered here for anonymity) knew that these actions had hurt his daughter and his family. He wasn’t sure if – or how – he could forgive himself.

Most of us can look back on our experiences and recall, often with great regret, times when we hurt others or did something that violated our values. Many people find it hard to forgive themselves for one or more of these instances, carrying around a considerable burden of guilt. In our clinical work and research on self-forgiveness, we have spoken with individuals who’ve struggled with a broad range of offences: marital infidelity, patterns of angry outbursts, physically and verbally fighting with teenage children, manipulating and stealing from others as a result of drug and alcohol dependencies, abandoning family or friends when they were in need, and more.

Grappling with what you’ve done wrong prior to forgiving yourself can be a good thing – feelings of guilt can motivate you to make amends and change any entrenched behaviours. However, sometimes self-forgiveness seems painfully out of reach. If this is the case for you, you might be having thoughts like ‘I don’t deserve to forgive myself,’ or ‘I deserve to be punished.’ Or, you may find it hard to forgive yourself for other reasons: because you just can’t gather the courage to face what you have done, for example, or because you want to prove to the other person just how sorry you are.

Self-forgiveness is about addressing your past to move forward

As psychologists who have long been interested in this subject, we developed a process to help people work toward self-forgiveness. The process includes four parts, which we call the Four Rs of Self-Forgiveness. In working toward self-forgiveness, a person does the following:

  • takes responsibility for harming another person;
  • expresses remorse (while also seeking to minimise shame);
  • engages in restoration, through repair-oriented behaviours and a recommitment to personal values; and
  • achieves a renewal of self-respect, self-compassion and self-acceptance.

Forgiving yourself does not mean condoning your own actions, forgetting what you have done, or minimising the impact it has had on others. True self-forgiveness involves both taking responsibility and moving toward self-compassion.

In this Guide, we will provide a roadmap for the process of self-forgiveness as we understand it. The steps in this process can be applied in most if not all cases involving harm toward other people, whether it’s a single hurtful act or a pattern of behaviour. (Harming oneself has its own specific complications that make self-forgiveness, as we define it, less relevant.) Of course, the severity of the offence affects the amount of work needed to bring someone back in touch with their values and the people they care about. But if you recognise that you’ve hurt another person or other people in some way, and you feel badly for doing so, then it could be worthwhile to engage in the process that we describe here.

In one study of the Four Rs approach, individuals who received eight weeks of self-forgiveness counselling had significantly more self-forgiveness and significantly less self-condemnation compared with those who didn’t receive treatment. Furthermore, we showed that people with greater improvements in self-forgiveness at the end of treatment had less psychological distress two months later. Not only is self-forgiveness helpful for moving on from hurtful behaviour, it may also help reduce levels of anxiety, depression and relationship strain.

An important precondition for genuine self-forgiveness is that the harmful behaviour has stopped. For instance, once Joe found more successful ways to express and contain his anger, and no longer acted it out in physically and emotionally hurtful ways, he was then ready to explore how to forgive himself. In working his way through the process that we developed, Joe was able, eventually, to come to a place of self-forgiveness.

Beginning the process of self-forgiveness does not mean that you won’t ever make mistakes again. But it does mean accepting that what you have done was wrong and should not continue. This is the initial step toward taking responsibility – the first R that we will explore in this Guide.

What to do

Identify the consequences of your behaviour

One of the clearest descriptions of taking responsibility as a way to move toward growth and healing is the fourth of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous: ‘a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves’. Searching and fearless. To explore what you have done to hurt someone else requires the courage to face what you might find and what you might be responsible for. Without an authentic reckoning of actions and their impact, no resolution of guilt can be genuine or lead to changes in behaviour.

A simple exercise can help to flesh out the impact of your behaviour. The basic principle is to identify and list the consequences. Both noting the consequences and documenting them in some fashion are important. For example, writing down consequences on notecards (one for each consequence) can help to visualise the impact. To help identify consequences, you might consider these questions:

  • Whom did I hurt the most, and who else was impacted?
  • In what ways did my action(s) harm the other person’s reputation/relationships/view of themselves, others, or the world?
  • What kind of pain did I cause: physical, emotional/mental, financial, interpersonal, etc?

One challenge in taking responsibility is to avoid over- or under-blaming yourself – to humbly accept what you are truly responsible for, and leave the rest.

Sometimes people take on responsibility for harms they didn’t cause, or blame themselves too much for some small slight. One woman we worked with struggled to forgive herself for sending a strongly worded letter to her mother, in which she had called her mother’s recent actions hurtful and ‘evil in the eyes of God’. The client felt bad about her strong tone and judgmental statements. However, she later revealed that her mother had been abusive to her most of her life. Not only was the language of the letter not particularly hurtful, but within the context of her experience, her statements might have even been seen as a victory in terms of agency and boundary-setting.

In contrast, other people tend to under-blame themselves. We could imagine a reaction that Joe might have when confronted with his rough and hurtful behaviours toward his daughter. Instead of feeling guilt – or to cope with his guilt – he might tell himself that his actions really weren’t that bad or that he and his siblings had it much worse with their own father.

Either path, over- or under-blaming, leads away from true self-forgiveness. The former increases the risk of experiencing unhelpful shame; the latter reduces or hides the guilt that could motivate corrective action. Taking the time to identify specific consequences of the behaviour for which you are struggling to forgive yourself can provide some focus and help you to avoid the risks of over- or under-blaming.

Recognise the difference between who you are and what you’ve done

In taking responsibility for your behaviour, it is important to remember that good people can do bad things, and that one action or set of actions does not forever invalidate you (or anyone else) as a worthwhile person.

This idea is closely connected to the emotions of shame and guilt. Whereas shame is related to your sense of who you are and can be deeply painful and disabling (eg, it might lead you to avoid other people), guilt is focused on specific behaviours and can be highly motivating. As the psychologist June Price Tangney and her collaborators have suggested, shame says there is something wrong with ‘who I am’, while guilt says there is something wrong with ‘what I did’. Central to feeling guilty is an understanding of responsibility. This can lead to actions to make things right, even as you accept that the behaviour you feel guilty about need not define you.

To help you simultaneously hold the contrasting experiences of ‘being a person of worth’ and ‘being a person who has hurt others’, try to access a psychological state that we call the ‘wise self’. In this state (similar to the concept of the ‘wise mind’ described in dialectical behaviour therapy), you make use of both your emotions and your logic, and you acknowledge that two things that might feel contradictory can actually both be true. Thinking in this way can help you avoid defensiveness or self-abasement as you reflect on past behaviour.

Your wise self is easier to reach if you feel grounded, rested and aware of yourself and your surroundings, without judgment. It can help to simply start with breathing, and noticing the breath. Slow, measured breathing – taking a few seconds to breathe in, then the same number of seconds to breathe out, and repeating – can lay the foundation for accessing a calmer, more accepting state of mind.

List and reflect on your values

Remorse follows responsibility-taking in the process of forgiving yourself. The work of this stage is to respond to your emotions in ways that lead to action and healing rather than toward inaction, defensiveness and further pain.

To lay a foundation for this stage, it can be useful to short-circuit feelings of shame through self-affirmation. Self-affirmation is not a simplistic recitation of phrases in the mirror (‘I’m good enough,’ ‘I’m smart enough,’ etc). Instead, it involves raising awareness of the positive aspects of the self, which can help counter negative messages.

One useful technique for affirming the self is to identify your values. To start, write down a list of values that you hold – it could be as many as 10 or so. Think about: what is important to you? What guides your decisions? What do you hold as sacred? Once you’ve identified some of your values, rank them from most important to least important. Then, take your top value and elaborate on it. For example, you might identify ‘respect for others’, ‘sacrifice’, or ‘humility’ as your top value. To elaborate on this, you can write a paragraph explaining how the value typically guides your thoughts and actions, what you are committed to, and how you live your life. Notice how this value reflects your life choices and who you are. This exercise can help to broaden your self-view and buffer against the tendency to see the self as damaged or inadequate when you think about behaviour that you regret.

A complementary approach is to reflect on different roles you play in your life. If the behaviour for which you’re struggling to forgive yourself happened in the context of a romantic relationship, you might currently feel troubled about that role. But you may also be a very good friend or employee or sibling. As with the elaboration of personal values, elaborating on the different positive roles (or one very positive role) that you play can help to broaden your self-view.

Express remorse, on your own or with others

One of the best ways to make sense of feelings – including feelings about something you’ve done wrong – is to express them. Through expression, feelings take on new, deeper and often more nuanced meanings. Identifying a feeling can also release some of the energy that comes with it.

There are many ways to express remorseful feelings and the thoughts associated with them. Here are some examples:

Write about it. Focus on your thoughts and feelings about the regretted behaviour and simply describe them in text. As you get started, write as much or as little as you feel comfortable with. Answering the following questions could help:

  • What are the worst parts of the event(s)?
  • What am I feeling as I recall the event(s)?
  • What do I tend to do when these feelings come up?
  • What thoughts (about myself, the situation, the offended person, or others I care about) are associated with these memories?
  • What would I do differently if I could go back?

Create art to express your feelings. For some, it is harder to describe feelings through prose than it is to use other forms of creative expression. If that’s the case for you, then drawing, painting, music or poetry could be better options. Make use of whatever tendencies or skills you have to express your remorse.

Talk to a trusted friend, family member, mentor or counsellor. Describing your feelings and thoughts to someone who cares about you can help to mentally organise your experiences and regulate the feelings related to them. This works best with people who can listen without trying to fix the situation or let you off the hook. Consider asking them to just ‘hear you out’ or to listen without trying to make it better.

Decide to make amends – either directly or indirectly

Once remorse has been embraced and expressed, it is time for restoration. Restoration involves attempts at repairing the harm caused by past behaviour, as well as a reorientation toward any personal values that were violated.

Start by considering whether you should pursue direct amends, indirect amends, or both. With direct amends, you try to personally make it up to someone who was harmed. If you have an ongoing and generally healthy relationship with the person, some form of direct amends will usually be beneficial. Apologies are one type of direct amends, but there are additional approaches – such as intentionally treating the other person in ways that are contrary to the offence and that better align with your values. Joe, for example, may practise patience with his daughter and increase his use of affectionate hugs and cuddles while reading to her.

Conversely, if your relationship with the person has been severed or is strained for reasons beyond your offence, your attempts to make direct amends may increase distress for the other person. In these cases, indirect amends may be more appropriate, at least as an initial step toward restoration.

Indirect amends are actions intended to help make up for what you did without directly involving the person you hurt. For example, an adult daughter who regrets not attending to her sick mother as she died alone in the hospital may decide that she wants to donate to the hospital visitor centre. If and when she feels ready, she might later decide to volunteer at the hospital, sitting with patients whose loved ones cannot be with them. Other indirect amends might include resolving to treat others the way you wish you had treated the person you hurt, or developing virtues (such as patience, courage or self-control) that have been lacking in your life, contributing to the behaviour you regret.

In general, we recommend that you evaluate whether a desire for direct repair is for your benefit or for the benefit of the other person. Attempts at direct amends as a way to assuage your own guilt without consideration for the other person’s needs may lead to additional hurt and should be avoided. In some cases, it’s best to first engage in indirect amends and then evaluate whether direct amends for the benefit of the other person are warranted.

Make a plan for restoration

Making amends and reconnecting to your values can help to further separate your regretted actions from the core of your personhood, to the benefit of your relationships and your self-esteem. To create a plan for making things right and reorienting to your values, consider the following questions:

  • What goals do you have in making amends? Keeping in mind whether direct or indirect amends seem to be in order, think about your goals. The more specific your goals, the better able you will be to see if you have met them. For example, one of Joe’s general goals is to show his daughter more patience. One specific patience-related goal may be to devote about 30 minutes to her bath-time each day so they do not feel rushed.
  • What specific step or steps can you take in the next week to work toward your goals? We generally recommend starting with a step that has a relatively high likelihood of success. One of Joe’s specific steps might be to sit down with his spouse to slightly modify the family schedule to allow for 30-minute bath-times.
  • In the future, how can you meet your wants and needs in ways that align with your values? It’s possible that your regretted behaviour was connected to some underlying wants or needs that are valid in themselves, but that you met in a way that violated your values. If that is the case, think of alternative ways to meet those wants or needs going forward. For example, a boss who wants to feel respected by his employees – and who previously tried to obtain this through controlling behaviours – may decide that regularly expressing respect for his employees is a good way to earn it in return, and is consistent with his values.
  • How can I create accountability for this plan? Your plan is only as good as your follow-through. You might share your plan with a trusted person or build in self-accountability, such as by writing down your goals and specifying a date to check in with yourself about your progress. Use this to carry out your plan, making adjustments to the plan as needed.

If you have decided that direct amends are appropriate, a heartfelt apology might be part of your repair efforts. An effective apology will make it clear that you know that what you did was wrong (naming the specific actions or inactions), and that you take ownership over what you did. You should also share your commitment to not repeat the offending behaviour. You may convey your feelings as a way to show the significance of your regret, though try to manage your emotions enough that the other person doesn’t feel the need to take care of you during the conversation.

As part of this stage, we encourage you to review the personal values that we asked you to identify earlier in the Guide. You may recognise that you violated one or more of these values through your offence. Reflect on how living out these values can be part of your restoration process.

Write about and reflect on your new direction

While guilt and self-judgment after a transgression can serve to encourage moral growth, there is no functional reason to continually criticise yourself once you have engaged in effective repair. Our final stage of self-forgiveness, renewal, involves minimising self-punishment and treating yourself with respect and compassion.

One technique to help you move in this positive direction is to look for daily examples of ways (large or small) that you are living out the values that are important to you. You might give particular attention to the values that were violated through your past mistakes. Write down these examples each day and reflect upon them weekly. For instance, Joe might take note of examples such as getting on his knee to talk to his daughter calmly, at her level, when she was upset about a broken toy, or taking five extra minutes to read a second book to her at night. Recognise that you won’t act out your values perfectly, but continue to work toward ‘better’ each week.

It could also be helpful to write a letter of self-forgiveness. If you struggle with self-compassion, channel a kind friend or mentor when you write this, imagining what they would say to you. This letter can include a direct offer or expression of self-forgiveness (eg, ‘Dear [your name], I am offering you forgiveness because …’), as well as anything else you may need to hear from yourself. The letter can be as long or as short as needed to express what you need to hear. For example, you might acknowledge the steps that you have engaged in to work through your regretted actions. You can also remind yourself of the commitment you have made to living out your values moving forward. Return to this letter when you are feeling discouraged.

Finally, you may want to consider speaking with a therapist. We believe that therapy can be helpful at any step on the pathway to self-forgiveness. But if you are struggling with difficult, ongoing feelings about your behaviour that you think may be based in shame or low self-worth, talking about these concerns in therapy could aid you in your renewal process.

Key points – How to forgive yourself

  1. Most of us can recall times when we’ve caused harm. Guilt and reflection can be worthwhile. But sometimes people find it excessively hard to accept what they did.
  2. Self-forgiveness is about addressing your past to move forward. Trying to make things right, rather than avoiding or dwelling on what you did, can help you get past guilt.
  3. Identify the consequences of your behaviour. It’s essential to take responsibility. Identify specific consequences of your actions, without exaggerating or minimising them.
  4. Recognise the difference between who you are and what you’ve done. Good people can do the wrong thing. You can both accept responsibility for your actions and recognise your worth as a person.
  5. List and reflect on your values. Lay a foundation for productive remorse by reflecting on positive core aspects of who you are – such as your most important values.
  6. Express remorse, on your own or with others. Whether it’s through writing, artistic expression or conversation, let out your feelings about the behaviour you regret.
  7. Decide to make amends – either directly or indirectly. While making it up to someone directly is often appropriate, there are alternatives when it’s not advisable or possible.
  8. Make a plan for restoration. Identify your goals in making amends, specific steps for working toward those goals, and ways to meet your wants and needs that will avoid future harm.
  9. Write about and reflect on your new direction. Renew your sense of self by noting examples of how you are living in line with your values, and/or by writing a letter of self-forgiveness.

Learn more

Forgiving yourself when someone has not forgiven you

Some people wonder: is it selfish to forgive myself if I have not been forgiven by the person or people I hurt? Others fear that it is premature, irresponsible or perhaps even immoral to consider forgiving themselves prior to receiving forgiveness. How can you seek self-forgiveness when others have not – and possibly will not – forgive you?

Many of the people we have worked with have struggled with these thoughts. For example, Richardo came to us to work on forgiving himself for an affair that he had years ago, which ended his marriage. (His name and some details have been changed here.) As a result of his actions and the separation, he was disconnected from his children, and he feared that they did not want to have anything to do with him. As he worked through his guilt and pain and moved toward self-forgiveness, he struggled with the fact that his ex-wife and his children still held considerable bitterness toward him. He realised, however, that he had never approached them with an apology or any efforts to make amends. His shame for his actions had held him back and caused him to withdraw from them.

By facing his actions and the resulting feelings and experiences, Richardo was able to apologise and seek to make things right. His ex-wife was unable to forgive him in the time that we worked with Richardo. He was able, however, to repair his relationship with his children and become more involved in their lives.

We maintain that forgiveness from the person you hurt is not a requirement for forgiving yourself. For one thing, there are obvious cases in which it might be impossible, such as when the person you hurt is no longer alive or is no longer in your life. But even in cases in which forgiveness is possible but is not offered, self-forgiveness is still an option. Someone you have hurt has every right to forgive you, or not, as they see fit. That is not something you can control. But you can control what you do in response to any mistakes you have made. Self-forgiveness that emerges from the Four Rs process is grounded in responsibility and behaviour change, and while that can lead to personal growth and better relationships, it is not bound by the reactions and feelings of others.

When Richardo moved toward self-forgiveness, despite his ex-wife’s choice not to forgive him, he was still able to change his self-view from ‘selfish, cheating spouse’ to someone who can now better express his desires within a romantic relationship. This opened him up to dating again, something he had avoided for fear of hurting a new partner. Richardo was also able to make things right with his children. His shame and self-isolation had been depriving them of a caring and supportive father. Self-forgiveness was the path back to giving them something that they deserved: a dedicated father who took responsibility for his hurtful actions and made things right.

Links & books

A podcast episode on self-forgiveness, from the How to Start Over podcast by The Atlantic, features interviews with two experts – one on regret and one on self-forgiveness. It also includes a personal story of self-forgiveness.

In his clear and engaging book Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free From the Past (2013), the psychologist and self-forgiveness expert Everett Worthington Jr outlines his approach. The book includes some discussion of religion and God, but doesn’t presume that all readers are religious or spiritual.

Sometimes, self-forgiveness is closely related to the process of forgiving others. In the book Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope (2001), Robert Enright shares his method for helping people to forgive others based on research and clinical practice.

In his TEDx talk ‘How Self-Forgiveness Saved My Life’ (2019), Josh Galarza tells the story of how he struggled to forgive someone for hurtful past behaviour, but ultimately embraced the value of forgiveness – and came to realise that he needed to forgive himself, too.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho Tutu van Furth wrote a beautiful book about forgiveness informed by Tutu’s experiences leading the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World (2014), examines both the giving and receiving of forgiveness.

The struggle to forgive oneself for past behaviour is often bound up with feelings of shame. A previous Psyche Guide, ‘How to Cope with Shame’ (2022), explores the experience of shame in depth, and offers further exercises for recognising and dealing with it.

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29 March 2023