Embracing Self-Forgiveness

By Paul Dunion | April 7, 2017

Let’s start by looking at the word forgive in order to shed some light upon what actually happens when we are forgiving.  The prefix for comes from the German, meaning “away”.  We can say that that the word, forgive might mean “away give” or “give away someone’s wrongdoing or transgressions”. Giving them away suggests we are letting go of the infraction, including letting go of any cursing we did of the person because of the transgression that was committed. Hence, genuine forgiveness entails seeing and honoring the person’s essential goodness.

Most of us were taught that forgiveness happens between people. Either we are forgiving someone or someone is forgiving us. Certainly, when we authentically forgive or are forgiven by someone, there are numerous possible advantages due to the restoration of the relationship.  However, the same is true of self-forgiveness. There are many possible benefits coming from learning to forgive ourselves. In fact, even the focus of working on forgiving ourselves places our attention in a very honorable direction. Let’s begin by looking at why it may be so difficult to make the offering of forgiveness to ourselves.


The Challenge of Self-forgiveness

 There are several significant impediments to growing a facility with self-forgiveness:

*We are taught that forgiveness is something we can only receive from others.

Of course, what this does is to place control over our personal worth with someone else.  It is easy for authority figures to fall prey to framing forgiveness as something they either offer or withhold. Hence, they hold the belief that they have more power to modify a child’s behavior. This strategy may have short-term effectiveness, but shows no substantial capacity to instill certain values that guide a child’s actions.

*Invalidation of Self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is often described as disingenuous. It is suggested that forgiving ourselves will likely be accompanied by a cavalier attitude aimed simply at helping us feel better about ourselves.  The implication is that we are attempting to simply mitigate feeling guilt and remorse. Hence, the only valid forgiveness must come from the person we offended or a representative of a religion. In either case, responsibility and control over our goodness lies in the hands of others.  It is very misleading to identify all acts of self-forgiveness as a way to dismiss the gravity of what we have done. We can gradually move into deepening levels of self-forgiveness accompanied by regret and remorse.

*Protecting Against Future Wrongdoing. The thinking here is that if we withhold forgiving ourselves, we have more control over preventing some future occurrence of the unacceptable behavior. I often refer to this strategy as Bad Self-parenting.  It didn’t work when our parents did it to us and it doesn’t work when we do it to ourselves.

*Refusal To Accept Personal Limits. This is a popular impediment to self-forgiveness.  It is simply the refusal to accept the weakness or short-sightedness that gave rise to some impropriety. Rather than forgive ourselves, we continue to hold a vision of some more idyllic consideration of who we could be. This obstacle is typically driven by arrogance as we are always supposed to be better.

*Confirmation of Some Self-diminishing way we already see ourselves. Rather than forgive ourselves, we gather more data in support of viewing ourselves as damaged goods. One alleged benefit is that it may support us to be risk averse. Given our alleged defect, we consider it foolish to take on some risk.


Benefits of Self-forgiveness

If we are willing to become an apprentice of self-forgiveness, there will likely be some significant benefits:

*Gives us responsibility and control for forgiveness and our essential worth.  Restoring our relationship to ourselves needs to primarily be our responsibility. If we violate our own values, and in doing so, hurt someone, it is our responsibility to do what needs to be done in order to move back into integrity.

*A confirmation of our humanity.  Self-forgiveness has the power to interrupt aspirations of perfectionism. Perfectionism is an attempt to eclipse the human condition. It is an assault upon our humanity. When we are willing to forgive ourselves, we are more accepting of our humanity and more willing to work with it.

*Supports learning how to make mistakes. Knowing how to make mistakes is an art form. Self-forgiveness allows us to feel regret and remorse, and then move on to respond creatively to the blunder. The creative energies begin to constellate when we can substitute curiosity in place of ridiculing ourselves. Curiosities include: What part of me made this mistake? What was I attempting to accomplish? What or who needed to be more considered? What is the mistake asking of me? What may obstruct deeper learning from this mistake? With whom would it benefit me to explore these questions?

*Helps to diminish self-righteousness.  When we are demanding that we live by a higher standard, self-forgiveness can be difficult to come by.  It is also likely that the attachment to some higher standard engenders a sense of self-righteousness, as we strive to be who we should be rather than who we are. Self-righteousness has the power to restore us to our common humanity.

*Helps us to become more risk-friendly. We fundamentally do not fear taking risks. We fear the abusive treatment we will likely inflict upon ourselves if a risk yields unfavorable consequences. The more we trust that we will do our best to issue self-forgiveness when there are adverse results, the more we will likely be to risk.

*Supports the deepening of our capacity to learn. Learning suggests we are stepping onto unfamiliar terrain. We are in some way novice to new material. Self-forgiveness issues a pervasive compassion affording us a new level of grace as we embrace unknowing. It offers suppleness as we stumble into getting some concept wrong, rather than getting stuck seeing ourselves as wrong.


A willingness to learn about how to strengthen an ability to forgive ourselves is tantamount to learning how to be more fully alive. Since risking becomes less of an opportunity to enact self-admonishment, we explore more, appreciating the opportunity to go somewhere new. We likely see more, engage more, give and receive more. Perseverating upon our transgressions is replaced by a renewed readiness for involvement. We allow what and whom we love to be witnessed.



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