When we have caused another person pain, one of the healthiest, albeit challenging things to do is to forgive ourselves. Self-forgiveness is the “willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself” (Enright, 1996, p. 115). According to Fisher and Exline (2010), the ideal process of self-forgiveness involves the transgressor accepting an appropriate amount of responsibility, experiencing sufficient levels of guilt to prompt reparative behaviors and personal growth, and then releasing excess guilt that no longer serves a useful function. However, this trajectory is seldom realized in real life. Many of us avoid guilty feelings altogether by taking emotional shortcuts to make ourselves feel better (e.g., emotional suppression, excuse-making, or blaming someone else) without accepting responsibility or repairing relational damage (Fisher & Exline, 2010). Alternatively, we may go to the opposite extreme, getting caught up in negative feelings, such as shame, excessive guilt, and regret for our transgression.
To actively forgive oneself, one must view the transgression from a broader perspective and realize that one is merely human. In this way, self-forgiveness aligns with self-compassion, which involves being kind toward the self in the face of difficulty while recognizing that one’s experience is common to humanity (Neff & Germer, 2018). According to Neff and Germer (2018), self-forgiveness consists of five steps: 1) opening to the pain of remorse; 2) being self-compassionate in the face of adversity; 3) recognizing that the situation was a consequence of many interdependent causes and conditions; 4) offering self-forgiveness; and 5) resolving to not repeat the same mistake.
This tool was adapted from the Forgiving Ourselves exercise in Neff and Germer’s (2018) book entitled ‘The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook,’ by Lucinda Poole (PsyD) and Hugo Alberts (Ph.D.).
This tool aims to help you utilize self-compassion to come to terms with and forgive yourself for a transgression.
You are less likely to self-forgive immediately following a transgression; thus, it is important to give you ample time before encouraging self-forgiveness.
Moving toward genuine self-forgiveness may require what some will view as a step backward. For those who have taken a shortcut to feel better (e.g., by blaming someone else), it will be important to accept responsibility and endure the accompanying pain and discomfort. Genuine self-forgiveness will remain elusive if you merely sidestep negative emotions.
The idea with self-forgiveness is to help you find ways to accept responsibility for your transgressions without lapsing into extreme negative emotions that take energy away from the important tasks of personal growth and from building a satisfying and meaningful life.
You may find it helpful to write about your thoughts and feelings concerning self-forgiveness. This could be done as a post-meditation activity or instead of meditation (part 1) in cases where you would prefer not to meditate.
Following this exercise, you may express a desire to apologize to the person(s) you have hurt. Please discuss with me the pros and cons of apologizing to ensure an apology is indeed a healthy and adaptive exercise.
The Apologizing Effectively activity can be used to help you make an effective apology.
Fisher, M. L., & Exline, J. J. (2010). Moving toward self-forgiveness: Removing barriers related to shame, guilt, and regret. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 4(8), 548-558.
Neff, K., & Germer, C. (2018). The Mindful self-compassion workbook: A proven way to accept yourself, build inner strength, and thrive. Guilford Press.