If you’ve ever made a mess of things at work, in a relationship, or any other setting, you know how it feels to want to do better in life. With that desire may be feelings of inadequacy, guilt, and shame. These feelings don’t go away easily, and we can carry them with us for years.

We know that forgiving others is one of the key ways that relationships stay functional – not only does forgiveness acknowledge the frailty of the people with whom you’re in relationship, but it allows you to let go of negative thoughts and feelings toward others that eventually are harmful to the relationship and you too.

Seeing that forgiving others has such a deep value, what about forgiving ourselves? We all do things that we regret. We know we shouldn’t have done this or that, and we can carry that mistake and its consequences with us for years, with guilt and shame as our companions.

What is self-forgiveness?

It’s common enough to hear one person say to another, “You need to forgive yourself.” Depending on what it is they have done, that may be a tall order. If someone is a parent, and when they were growing up, they were abused, if they go on to abuse their own children, they may feel that something like that is unforgivable.

If one drove drunk and ended up seriously injuring or killing someone else, that’s something they may feel they should carry the burden of for the rest of their life. A spouse who had multiple affairs and finally understands the gravity of what they did, might think they deserve those feelings of guilt and shame and speaking about self-forgiveness is simply letting themselves off the hook.

There are several ways we can understand “self-forgiveness.” Forgiveness is something that a person chooses to give freely to another. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean what they did was okay, or that there are no consequences for their actions. In forgiving someone, a person is choosing to let go of feelings of resentment or the desire for revenge.

Self-forgiveness is about choosing to accept the forgiveness offered, either by the person whom we offended, or God. Having accepted that forgiveness offered, we let go of the feelings of guilt and shame toward ourselves and don’t keep ourselves in the doghouse for it. We’ll talk in more detail a little later about this process of self-forgiveness.

Why would I need to forgive myself?

As sinful human beings, we harm the people around us on many occasions either through our words or actions. While we need to own those sins, carrying the burdens of guilt and shame doesn’t make us whole people and can lead us toward further harmful behavior – if not toward others, then toward ourselves.

Guilt is what some think of as the feeling we have when we’ve done something wrong. We rightly recognize that we’ve failed to meet a standard. Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that we are bad because we’ve done terrible things. On the contrary, we do bad things precisely because we are bad people. Thus, shame goes to the core of who I am, identifying me as a bad and unworthy person.

We often compensate for feelings of shame in other, more harmful ways such as substance abuse or risky behavior, and that further undermines our physical and mental health. And so, we need to forgive ourselves, or accept forgiveness, to avoid settling into a downward spiral.

The notion of forgiving ourselves applies in situations where we are responsible for the things that have happened. If you’re unfairly blaming yourself for things such as suffering trauma, loss, or abuse that you had no control over, you do not need to forgive yourself because you did nothing wrong. A trained therapist or counselor can help you to process those feelings of shame and guilt but realize that you are not to blame for the actions of others.

How self-forgiveness works

When we are at fault for something, we can try to bury our feelings of guilt and shame in several ways, such as comparing ourselves and our behavior to others, minimizing what we did, or shrugging it off as a learning experience that we’ll grow from.

The difficulty with all these is that they rarely if ever lift the burden of our guilt and shame, often only serving to minimize the pain our actions have caused to others. At times it may even cause us to lose empathy for those we’ve hurt.

Forgiveness is something given to us that we choose whether to accept or not. When we wrong other people, they may choose to forgive us. It’s up to us whether we accept that forgiveness and adjust how we relate to ourselves. They may choose, however, not to forgive us.

In this instance, it may feel like forgiving ourselves by accepting God’s forgiveness is self-indulgent and letting ourselves off the hook, and it can be if we go about it the wrong way. How do we go about self-forgiveness in a way that honors others and keeps us accountable and empathetic?

We need to accept responsibility for our actions.

We need to own our mistakes and not blame other people or our circumstances for them. Many factors may influence our behavior, but we must take final responsibility for whatever happened and the consequences that follow.

Recognize your worth.

You need to understand that what you’ve done doesn’t affect your intrinsic worth or dignity. No matter what we do, we are still human beings made in God’s image, and that means we have inherent dignity that can never be erased.

Shame, which seeks to rewrite our identity and make us feel beyond redemption, may lead to a spiral of behaviors such as addiction to try to suppress the feeling that you’re beyond God’s grace. By clinging to the truth of your inherent worth as someone made in God’s image, you enable yourself to receive God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others.

Seek to make amends.

Forgiving ourselves or trying to make up for what we did by fixing our mistake without seeking forgiveness from the person we’ve wronged can be self-indulgent. We need to face the people we’ve hurt (where possible), recognize the hurt and the impact our actions have, and try to remedy the situation.

There may not always be ways to fix things, but reaching out to the person we’ve wronged, acknowledging what we did, and earnestly asking for forgiveness is a great start to restoring the relationship and making things right.

Understand the how and why.

To grow as a person and avoid repeating the same mistakes, take the time to understand why you behaved the way you did and why you feel guilty. Consider the steps can you take to prevent the same behaviors again in the future. We behave the way we do for a reason – a parent may abuse their child despite having vowed to themselves that they would never do to their children what was done to them.

But trauma can and does repeat itself, especially in stressful situations. Our own sense of shame, the proclivity to taking things personally, low self-confidence, or even seeing our vulnerabilities replicated in our child can all be underlying causes why even a parent who was abused as a child may abuse their own children.

A vital part of self-forgiveness is seeking to understand these realities, so you understand your behavior and begin to seek healing to break those patterns of behavior. A therapist or counselor can be a significant help in discerning these patterns and tracing out their roots, as well as receiving tools to overcome them.

For a believer, self-forgiveness is about accepting God’s forgiveness and beginning a new life in Christ (Romans 8:1). Instead of condemning yourself and living under a cloud of guilt and shame, being kind toward yourself by accepting God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of others is just one way you can love yourself in a life-giving way.

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