- Forgiveness has a positive effect on health and well-being.
- Forgiveness is a selfish act—it’s done not to make a problematic situation go away but to free you from anger and bitterness.
- Being unable to forgive yourself for something you have done to another is equally damaging.
Most moral traditions hail the ability to forgive as a virtue. And yet, many of us find it difficult to practice forgiveness. The breakup of a relationship, family trauma, or betrayal of any kind can easily cause resentment to take root in our minds and hearts. The task of forgiving these slights and betrayals can be very difficult.
"Forgiveness is simply about understanding that every one of us is both inherently good and inherently flawed." —Desmond Tutu
Forgiveness can show up in stunning ways and in unexpected situations. We expect people who are the victims of violence or trauma to be angry; we don’t expect them to forgive the perpetrator. But it happens: For example, women who have been brutally raped sometimes speak of forgiving the attacker to free themselves from anger and pain. Forgiveness does not mean you condone whatever situation happened. It does not mean you were wrong, and the other person was right, or that you have to pretend nothing happened. You don’t have to become best friends with someone who hurt or abused you.
Forgiveness is a selfish act; it’s done not to make a problematic situation go away but to free you from anger and bitterness, to release the tension in your body, and allow you to move forward with your life.
Living with a sense of betrayal or a feeling that life is unfair can lead to depression, physical health problems, and relationship difficulties. Being unable to forgive yourself for something you have done to another is equally damaging: This lack of self-forgiveness can lead to low self-esteem, isolation, and an inability to feel you deserve a good life. For example, if a family member has bailed you out of credit card debt related to bingeing or paid for you to get treatment, you may blame yourself for the trouble your disorder is putting this family member through and have difficulty forgiving yourself. Or your eating disorder may have contributed to difficulties in your relationship with a friend. Denying yourself forgiveness can trigger binges, increase your negative self-talk, and lower your self-esteem.
On the other hand, forgiveness has a positive effect on health and well-being. College students who are able to forgive themselves and others enjoy better physical health—and self-forgiveness has an even stronger correlation with good health than forgiving others. Individuals who are able to be forgiving—of themselves and others—may also have lower blood pressure and a better ability to recover from the effects of stress on the heart. Forgiveness is, moreover, also associated with less medication use, less alcohol abuse, and fewer physical symptoms.
"It's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody." —Maya Angelou
It may be harder to forgive yourself than to forgive others. But both are important. When you are able to dig deep and recognize how your behaviors have harmed other people, and you can own it, you will be able to move towards forgiveness.
When you self-forgive, you do not take the easy way out. You own your actions and gradually move to a place of self-compassion and growth. Self-forgiveness is not an on-off switch, but a process that happens over time through emotional work and reflection.
Self-forgiveness requires striking a balance between taking responsibility and maintaining a positive sense of self. When you successfully find this equilibrium, you reach self-forgiveness.
Enright and the Human Development Study Group were the first to offer a concrete psychological definition of self-forgiveness as “a willingness to abandon self-resentment in the face of one’s acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself.” The group's work (1996) highlighted three important pillars of self-forgiveness:
- The release of negative emotions directed toward the self.
- The cultivation of positive emotions directed toward the self.
- An acceptance of responsibility.
Self-forgiveness does not mean we skip the step of feeling bad; it simply means that we work through these feelings of self-resentment and then relieve ourselves of them once they’ve served their purpose. Initially, remorseful feelings can be useful because they motivate us to make amends (Woodyatt and Wenzel, 2013).
If you were to only absolve yourself of negative emotions and shower yourself with positive emotions, this would be “spiritual bypass” or “pseudo-forgiveness.” True self-forgiveness involves owning your mistake. When a person has caused harm to another, Cornish and Wade (2015) suggest that self-forgiveness should also include an other-focused component, in which the person seeks to make amends with the one they’ve wronged and recommits to their values. They suggest this would make it less likely that the “offense” would happen again.
Self-forgiveness is not appropriate for everyone.
For some people, self-forgiveness may not be an appropriate focus for healing. For example, if you are a victim of sexual assault, taking responsibility is not warranted, and working on self-forgiveness could actually compound harmful feelings of self-blame (Cornish & Wade, 2015).
Additionally, a person who continues to harm another person—for example, in the case of domestic abuse—is not fully accepting responsibility for their actions. Cornish and Wade (2015) suggest that it’s possible that relieving negative self-directed feelings through encouraging premature self-forgiveness could reduce a person's incentive to change their behavior.
When you are in recovery, your actions and intentions must be aligned.
When you're not in recovery, your actions and intentions are not aligned and many times you may have made excuses for why you have not done what you said you would do. For example, if in the past you've not gone to dinner because of being fearful of eating in public or around your family, ask yourself how this scenario might be different when you're in recovery. Perhaps you might let a trusted family member know you're still anxious about going and ask for their support, or you may let your family know you're not ready to go to dinner but hope to do so in the future. Either of these actions would show alignment between your actions and intentions; not showing up for a dinner you promised to attend does not show that alignment.
"If we really want to love, we must learn how to forgive." —Mother Theresa
- Journal about situations or people who have harmed you, what emotion you have about it, and whether you are ready to forgive or not.
- For those you are not ready to forgive, ask yourself what it costs you to not forgive them. For example, if your partner cheated on you, you may still feel angry and hurt and may not be ready to forgive. The cost of not forgiving may be: My lack of forgiveness and continuing anger have affected my ability to work successfully with her on issues related to our kids. It also makes it hard for me to trust other women I date.
- Listen to a loving-kindness meditation daily for at least a week.
Enright, R. D., & Human Development Study Group. (1996). Counseling within the forgiveness triad: On forgiving, receiving, forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Counseling and Values, 40(2), 107–126. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2161-007X.1996.tb00844.x
Woodyatt and Wenzel (2013). Self-forgiveness and the restoration of offenders after an interpersonal transgression. Journal of Clinical and Social Psychology: 32(2): 225-259. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285810127_Self-forgiveness_and…
Cornish, M. A., & Wade, N. G. (2015). A therapeutic model of self‐forgiveness with intervention strategies for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development, 93(1), 96–104. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.1556-6676.2015.00185.x