Self-Forgiveness: Letting Go of What We Cannot Change in the Past

By: Other | April 27, 2018

Written by Paul Paris, Ph.D.

When we talk about forgiveness, we typically think in terms of forgiving others. When others have wronged us, we often struggle with the ability to forgive them. Maybe they haven’t yet acknowledged or apologized. Maybe they have passed away, and we can’t let go of what they did or how they treated us. As a therapist, I find that forgiveness can pose difficulties not only for forgiving others but also for forgiving ourselves for what we’ve done in the past.

I see the inability to forgive ourselves when others are not receptive to our attempts to atone or reconcile. I also see forgiveness unfulfilled when the person who is wronged cannot be contacted directly for whatever reason. Closure and resolution can be difficult in such cases. Chronic shame, guilt, and depression constitute common responses for not forgiving ourselves. Nevertheless, some methods can help us work toward breaking the stranglehold our past transgressions have upon us.

Attempt to “Right the Wrong”

This is usually the first step not only to self-forgiveness but also toward mending, repairing, or expressing our regret to another after we have intentionally or unintentionally hurt them. The function of normal guilt is to drive us toward resolving a perceived wrong we have done. So, if we have done everything we can to directly express our regret to the other person, that can sometimes help with closure even if the other person is not receptive to our attempts to reach out.

What Advice Would I Give to a Friend?

Sometimes, it helps our minds to grasp information more objectively if we think about it from another’s perspective. In that sense, think about what advice to give to someone we care about if they were in the same situation as we struggle with self-forgiveness. A written exercise or “letter” to the loved one (that is not sent) may be helpful to clarify the content of what we would advise. The exercise concludes by thinking about how that advice applies to ourselves.

Remember that Guilt Means You Care

For someone struggling with self-forgiveness, a common experience is to feel like a “bad” person. Another is to believe that you deserve the negative feelings you’re having as punishment for what you’ve done. However, it’s helpful to remind yourself that a “bad” person would not likely experience any guilt, shame, or remorse over what they did in the past. Reframing your emotions related to the transgression in this way can help reduce the shame and self-loathing that accompanies difficulty in forgiving the self.

Loving Kindness Meditation

This technique originated from Eastern practices and is commonly used now in therapy (for example, psychologists Marsha Linehan and Jack Kornfield use it in their therapeutic approach). The idea is to imagine compassion radiating outward from your heart area, first toward yourself, then to others, and ultimately to all beings. It can be quite helpful in the journey to self-forgiveness. I recommend browsing YouTube for either “Loving Kindness” or “Lovingkindness” and trying one of the guided meditation techniques provided therein.

Just like the journey of grief and loss, the journey to self-forgiveness is a unique experience for each individual. A common factor, however, includes working toward willingness and acceptance, not only of the past but also of the present and whatever the future may bring. Ultimately, the self-forgiveness journey can be as rewarding as the destination. Both are opportunities to learn from the past, to grow and develop on a deeper, even spiritual, level, and to gain a richer understanding of ourselves and others.


Image: Hans Backman on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

Get our latest articles sent directly to your inbox!