Updated: Jul 23, 2021
This blog series explores what forgiveness is, how to forgive others, and how we forgive ourselves.
As noted in What is Forgiveness, forgiveness is both decisional and emotional. How to Forgive Others covered the steps to take – deciding to forgive, refusing to ruminate, and processing emotions. Now, let’s talk about forgiving yourself.
Is self-forgiveness a thing? Yes, it’s an important thing.
Isn’t it just rationalizing or justifying your behavior so you quit feeling guilty? No, though, it does lessen the burden of guilt.
It's selfish, right? Not at all; it’s necessary to prevent recurring regrettable incidences. Self-forgiveness is a gift you give yourself and others.
Let me explain.
We have all violated our conscience. We have known something was wrong and, for whatever reason, decided to do it anyway. Paul sums this phenomenon up beautifully, “For I do not understand my own actions [I am baffled and bewildered by them]. I do not practice what I want to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate [and yielding to my human nature, my worldliness—my sinful capacity]” (Amplified Bible Classic Edition, 1954/1987, Rom. 7:15).
So, now what? We apologize to the offended party and God. We try really hard not to do it again...until we do. Rinse and repeat.
How do we break the cycle? Repentance and self-forgiveness. They are linked.
Repentance is defined as “a contemplated change in mind, heart, and action based on conviction of sin” (Hunt, 2014). Milam (2017) gives four conditions for self-forgiveness:
1. You must acknowledge the wrongness of your actions. This is the “contemplated change in mind” associated with repentance. It also eliminates rationalization and justification of the behavior.
2. You must accept responsibility for the behavior. No reasons stuffed with lies – a.k.a. excuses, as Billy Sunday would say.
3. You must acknowledge the guilt, shame, or fear associated with the action(s) and process the emotion(s). This is the change of heart portion of repentance.
4. Finally, when all these things come together, you have a “change condition.” In other words, your actions change because your mind and heart have changed.
Here’s the thing. When we violate our conscience, we create a state of cognitive dissonance. We create disharmony between who we believe we are and who we have shown ourselves to be. To regain harmony, we either forgive ourselves and move forward as who we believe ourselves to be – or we change our beliefs, i.e., justify and excuse our behavior (Aronson et al., 2016).
If we don’t forgive ourselves, we lower the bar each time we make an excuse and adapt our beliefs to our behavior. It increases the likelihood we will do it again.
Apologize. Repent. Forgive yourself.
Self-forgiveness is a gift you give yourself because it leads to growth and builds integrity. Your actions will align with your beliefs. It is a gift you give others as it reduces the likelihood of the offense becoming habitual.
Contact me for help on your journey to authentic healing and forgiveness.
Angela W. Startz, MAHSC, CCLC
Amplified Bible Classic Edition. (1987). Amplified Bible classic edition online. www.Biblegateway.com. (Original work published in 1954).
Aronson, E., Wilson, T. D., Akert, R. M., & Sommers, S. R. (2016). Social psychology, (9th ed.). (n.p.): Pearson Education.
Hunt, J. (2014). The biblical counseling reference guide. Harvest House Publishers.
Milam, P.E. (2017). How is self-forgiveness possible? Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 98, pp.49-69. https://www.doi.org/10.1111/papq.12091