Self-forgiveness isn’t easy. You probably have had the experience of doing something you regret. Maybe you hurt someone you cared about. Maybe you fell short of the standards you set for yourself. Whatever happened, it might have been difficult for you to move on from what you did. Maybe you kept thinking and ruminating about it. It’s difficult to forgive yourself and move on.
Some people have even questioned whether self-forgiveness is a good thing. Most people agree that forgiveness of others is a positive thing. Forgiveness of others has physical and mental health benefits, and it’s often an important step in reconciling a broken relationship.
But what about forgiving yourself? Some people have argued that forgiving yourself isn’t a good thing, because it’s like letting yourself off the hook. You made the mistake or committed the offense—what right do you have to just ‘decide’ to forgive yourself and move on? From a moral perspective, it doesn’t seem quite as straightforward.
A friend and colleague of mine, Brandon Griffin, has done some great thinking and work on self-forgiveness. He has done quite a bit of research on self-forgiveness, and he also has a lot of experience working with combat veterans who are struggling with self-forgiveness. Brandon says self-forgiveness involves two parts—and it is important to consider both.
First, self-forgiveness involves a change in emotions toward the self from negative to positive. This is similar to how a lot of folks describe forgiveness of others. Forgiveness of self involves a change in how we view ourselves. Instead of feeling a lot of guilt, shame, and anger toward ourselves, we begin to replace those feelings with empathy, compassion, and love toward ourselves. Our view of self begins to shift.
Second, self-forgiveness involves a reaffirmation of values. This is the piece that differentiates self-forgiveness from just letting ourselves off the hook. When we hurt someone or commit an offense, we often go against a value that we hold. For example, maybe we had a value of love and respect for our spouse, but we had an affair. Our actions went against our cherished values. This part of self-forgiveness involves reaffirming our core values, and making a commitment (as best we can) to align our future actions with our values.
Discussion: What do you think about Brandon’s two-part definition of self-forgiveness? Do you think both a change in emotions and a reaffirmation of values is important? Which part of self-forgiveness do you struggle with the most?