Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Self-Forgiveness Guide

Healing the world starts from healing yourself

Motoko Katayama
Source: Motoko Katayama

By Motoko Katayama, AMFT, CPA

Oftentimes people say that the hardest person to forgive is oneself. Although self-forgiveness may sound challenging, it is learnable (Cornish & Wade, 2015).

To be clear, self-forgiveness is not pardoning, denying, or excusing what one did. One needs to go through a process—feeling guilt and shame, taking responsibility, and apologizing—in order to finally achieve self-forgiveness.

This process might give you an opportunity to find a new meaning in your life, discover wholeness, or feel reconnected to yourself.

This blog post offers a roadmap for achieving self-forgiveness and the tools to navigate the difficult process.

What makes it so difficult to achieve self-forgiveness?

  • Lack of a road map for self-forgiveness
  • Conflicting definitions of wrongdoing
  • Feeling that you don’t deserve forgiveness
  • A lack of coping skills to deal with discomfort arising from the process

Self-Forgiveness Road Map

Many people didn’t have a chance to learn the process of self-forgiveness. Their learned models may look like continuous self-punishment, the topic itself having became taboo, or being ostracized by their community. These people do not know that they even have an option of self-forgiveness.

This high-level road map is based upon a framework created by McConnell (2015). Actual self-forgiveness takes a nonlinear approach. One needs to go back and forth between the phases below or work on more than one phase simultaneously.

  1. Define your wrongdoing according to your values
  2. Take full responsibility for what you did
  3. Determine how you will change your behavior, so that you will not repeat the mistake
  4. Decide how you want to repair the damage caused by your action
    a. If the damage is something you can’t repair, you could find alternatives such as making donations or volunteering to help people who suffer from similar problems
  5. Express your apology
    a. If the person is not ready to talk to you, give them some space. That person has to take all the time they need to become ready to listen
    b. If the person forgives you, practice accepting it
  6. If the person whom you hurt is not ready, no longer available, or is someone that it is unsafe for you to give your apology to, find other ways to express your apology
    a. Write a letter to the person without sending it
    b. Apologize to a family member of theirs
  7. Practice accepting and letting the past go, instead of holding onto a wish to change the past

Each person needs to determine the frequency and duration of working on self-forgiveness and set a timer. Once the timer goes off, stop the process and follow through with the self-care plan described below to bring yourself out of the distressful mental state.

Conflicting Definitions of Wrongdoing

What makes self-forgiveness difficult is that the definitions of wrongdoings change over time, in different legal jurisdictions, in different sects of the same religion, and with different members of the same family. Some things that were illegal or forbidden in the past—for instance, alcohol and divorce—have become accepted practices in many places. Since the definitions of wrongdoings are not fixed, each individual needs to define what they consider to be wrongdoing.

Feeling that You Don’t Deserve Forgiveness

To overcome this feeling, it might be helpful to put your best friend in your shoes. You could ask yourself how much longer your best friend should suffer from the same mistake that you’ve made. You might be surprised to realize that you think your friend deserved self-forgiveness long ago. This skill helps people learn how to extend kindness towards themselves.

Another approach would be to try to find a person who has never made a mistake. You would have a hard time finding such a perfect person, because being human includes making mistakes.

Self-forgiveness is also challenging when one can’t differentiate between one’s self and one’s wrongdoing. The result is a person labeling themselves as a failure or a bad person. They are not able to hold the idea that although their acts were not ideal, their self-worth remains intact. One result is the belief that they are not forgivable. Therefore, it is critical to learn to separate one's self from one’s wrongdoing—to create the possibility of self-forgiveness.

Lack of Coping Skills for Dealing with Discomfort

Without adequate skills, the journey of self-forgiveness can become overwhelming. This is one of the main reasons why people give up. It is a very difficult task to look at one’s wrongdoing, empathetically connect with other people’s pain caused by one’s mistake, and tolerate difficult emotions. Some skills that are helpful in this process include:

  • Non-judgment
  • Self-compassion
  • Grounding skills
  • Acceptance
  • Changing the TV channel: Instead of letting your brain play random and negative scenes in your mind, you can practice changing what’s on the TV screen in your mind by clicking a metaphorical remote control (Luskin, 2003).
  • Creating a self-care plan: This individualized plan could include listening to music, smelling aroma oil, exercising, calling a friend, reading a list of one’s good attributes, or looking at photographs with fun memories. Every time you work on self-forgiveness, follow the self-care plan afterwards to bounce back.


If you are having difficulty forgiving yourself, look at where you are stuck. The common challenges are: fully accepting responsibility, accepting forgiveness given by the other person, letting go of one’s desire to change the past, and self-criticism and self-punishment.

Ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish with behavior such as not accepting my responsibility or criticizing myself?” Often people realize that those behaviors serve a specific function, such as protecting themselves or preventing them from making the same mistake again. You could learn to take those responsibilities into your own hands and become in charge of, for example, keeping yourself accountable. By doing this, you might be able to let go of those behaviors that are preventing you from forgiving yourself.

Since self-forgiveness is not a one-time event or a linear process, it might be something that emerges from living heartfully: Practice “opening and cultivating the heart through inner stillness and silence, becoming more human, more compassionate, and more responsible, both to one’s own self and to all other beings.” (Murphy-Shigematsu, 2018, p.16)

Motoko Katayama, AMFT, CPA provides psychotherapy in California. Prior to becoming a psychotherapist, she worked as a financial consultant traveling around the globe to work with her team members. Her work experience gives her a deeper understanding of the struggles that her psychotherapy clients go through. Katayama envisions healing her clients one person at a time will eventually contribute to making the world a better and peaceful place.


Cornish, M. A., & Wade, N. G. (2015). A therapeutic model of self-forgiveness with intervention strategies for counselors. Journal of Counseling and Development, 93, 96–104.

Luskin, F. (2003). Forgive for good: a proven prescription for health and happiness. Harper: San Francisco.

McConnell, J. M. (2015). A Conceptual-Theoretical-Empirical Framework for Self-Forgiveness: Implications for Research and Practice. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 37 (3), 143-164

Murphy-Shigematsu, S. (2018). From Mindfulness to Heartfulness: Transforming Self and Society with Compassion. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler

More from Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu Ed.D.
2 Min Read
The effective practice of psychology includes the use of therapeutic approaches that are nonverbal, creative, and somatic.
More from Psychology Today
More from Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu Ed.D.
2 Min Read
The effective practice of psychology includes the use of therapeutic approaches that are nonverbal, creative, and somatic.
More from Psychology Today