Self-Forgiveness – Why Is It So Hard? 

Most of us have been hurt by others several times. And, of course, this comes with a lot of pain, anger, and sadness. And then, being full of negative and painful feelings, we feel the need to blame the responsible ones. 

Those feelings can haunt us until we manage to forgive the one who hurt/betrayed us. Forgiveness does not mean that we forget the harm and the pain we suffered or that we should rebuild the relationship with those that hurt us. Forgiveness means letting go of resentment, anger, guilt, shame, and sadness, accepting the whole experience and moving on [1].

Forgiving others can be quite challenging. But what happens when the perpetrator is us? What if it is us that caused all the painful, guilty, hostile, and shameful feelings? According to research, it is much harder to forgive ourselves than the others [2].  

This article will cover:

  • The definition of forgiveness and self-forgiveness.
  • Why is it so hard to forgive ourselves? 
  • Tips to forgive yourself.

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Self-forgiveness” can be about forgiving the self for harming the self (intrapersonal self-forgiveness) and about forgiving the self for harming someone else (interpersonal self-forgiveness). As with “forgiveness”, “self-forgiveness” means that we show compassion to ourselves, deliberately releasing the anger, guilt, and pain, reaching an internal sense of peace and learning from the previous mistakes. 

Why Is It Hard to Forgive Ourselves?  

Undoubtedly, many times we engage in actions that are not in line with our values. Every time we act in the wrong way according to us, we create a cognitive dissonance. That means, that because we acted against our ethical values, we feel an internal inconvenience and not satisfied with our side.

As a result, we need to do something to fix the situation. And since, it is impossible to delete our action and hard to forgive ourselves for the pain we provoked, it is easier to start punishing ourselves for it.

And I am definitely not saying that we enjoy it. Most of us, we really want to forgive ourselves and move on instead of punishing ourselves. But why do we get stuck in self-loathing? Why can’t we move on and let go of the anger and pain? Harmful self-directed behaviors that happen consciously or unconsciously are hindering our self-forgiveness.   

Do You Engage in Negative Self-Talk?

Engaging in negative self-talk is the first obstacle to achieve self-forgiveness.  After being aware that we have done something wrong, we can engage in negative self-criticism and self-talk. For example, a student did not study for an exam and then he/she failed. Afterwards, feeling of guiltiness and anger come in the surface and then he/she starts having thoughts such as “Why can I be responsible for once? I am always like this, I will always be a loser, I am a failure”. Instead of focusing on the wrong behavior and making a plan to correct it, we keep judging ourselves for the mistake we made, and we keep talking to ourselves like we are our worst enemy [2].  

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Do You Dwell on Your Mistakes?

Rumination is another enemy to self-forgiveness [3].  According to Watkins, 2008, “Rumination involves repetitive thinking or dwelling on negative feelings and distress and their causes and consequences” [4].

This means that we dwell on our mistakes, and we keep reproducing them on our minds.  As a result, we feel again and again the anger, sadness, guiltiness, and shame we felt the first time, getting stuck in the same vicious circle.

Experimental studies manipulating rumination have indicated that rumination exacerbates our negative feelings and negative self-talk. It is like we keep beating up ourselves over and over again, strengthening the negative feelings Focusing on the negative experience, feelings and thoughts, we tend to consider the mistakes we made as something irreversible.

Moreover, rumination interferes with effective problem-solving [4]. Since we only focus repeatedly on the negative feelings and thoughts, it is very hard to move on the solution and to realize how we can accept the situation and forgive ourselves.  

Our own cognitive biases can hinder the process of self-forgiveness. Cognitive biases are the unhelpful thinking habits that we have developed during our life.  

Do You Magnify Negative Situations?

The “Magnification” cognitive bias refers to our tendency to “exaggerate or magnify either the negative importance or consequence of some personal trait, event, or circumstance” [5]. More precisely, some people might have the habit to magnify the negative situations and as a consequence, they consider their mistake so huge, that they could never forgive themselves.

Hence, the more we magnify the importance of the mistake we made, the more negative feelings we feel and the hardest it is to forgive ourselves.  

Do You Create Should Statements?

Another important cognitive bias that obstacle self-forgiveness is named “Should Statements”. Many of us have a pattern of expectations or demands on ourselves and then, we measure our success according to those demands. For instance, we might think “I should not have done this”, “this is not how it should be”, “I should not make mistakes”. Those statements cannot always be realistic. However, since we set those unrealistic expectations to ourselves, we tend to feel as a failure every time we do not meet them. In the end, we feel unable to forgive ourselves for all the things we should have been, but we are not [5].  

Do You Think of Your Mistakes in Black & White?

The last cognitive bias that I would like to mention is the “Dichotomous/Black-and-White Thinking”.  According to Beck, this is “the tendency to view all experiences as fitting into one of two categories (e.g., positive or negative; good or bad) without the ability to place oneself, others, and experiences along a continuum.

For example, after having made a mistake, we might think that we have completely messed up with everything in life, feeling like there is nothing good in us anymore. We feel that we can be either incredibly good or awfully bad. We do not see ourselves as a whole individual that can makes good or bad actions. This way of thinking can make it extremely hard for us to forgive ourselves, since we feel like we did something so terrible, that nothing could make it better [5] 

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 Steps to forgive ourselves 

Self-forgiveness is associated with good mental health [6]. According to a meta-analysis of David et al, (2015), forgiveness of self is positively related to psychological well-being, life satisfaction, meaning, as well as it is negative related to anxiety and depression [6].

Moreover, self-forgiveness is found to reduce feelings of shame and self-punishment without excusing the behavior of the perpetrator. Individuals who forgive themselves still take responsibility for their actions but have fewer feelings of shame and self-condemnation.   

The most important component of self- forgiveness is showing self-compassion [7].  According to Neff (2011) [7], self-compassion has three components.   

Component 1: Self-Kindness

 The first one is self-kindness, a tendency to apply a caring, rather than judgmental, attitude toward one’s personal failures. For example, instead of negatively criticizing yourself about a potential mistake you made, you could take a different spin on this and be kind to yourself.

How can you do this? You could ask yourself:

  • “What would I say to my best friend if he/she did the same mistake?
  • How would I talk to my future child about a this?
  • How would I want my parents to talk to me about this?”

By answering to these questions, you could replace your inner “judger” with a more realistic and kind inner self-talk  and avoid your negative cognitive biases.   

Component 2: Common Humanity

The second one is common humanity, “the recognition that it is only “human” to make mistakes and that one’s suffering is shared by others” [7]. This component comes with acceptance of our own mistakes.

According to Neff (2003), [7], acceptance involves acknowledging that one has a flaw or shortcoming, or that a negative event, such as a failure, has occurred—and embracing it as a part of oneself.

Acceptance does not mean that we justify a wrong behavior or that we avoid the negative experience, but it means that we accept our imperfections, trying to understand our mistakes and grow from them, having a kind stance toward ourselves.  You can achieve self-acceptance through mindfulness techniques (see next paragraph). 

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Component 3: Mindfulness

The third component of self-compassion is mindfulness [7].  Mindfulness is the ability to be in the present moment, observing one’s experience non-judgmentally, without getting overwhelmed by this and without trying to change it [8].

By being mindful, you will be able to accept the situation easier and to become detached from the painful feelings. One easy way to achieve mindfulness is through focusing your attention to your breath. Every breath you take comes only once. You can never take a previous breath again or a future one. Hence, every time you focus your attention to your breathing, you know you are in the present moment.

Another way that mindfulness can be achieved is by observing three items around you that you can touch, taste, see, and hear.

A third way is through mediation. Meditation will help you stay in the present moment, acknowledge and observe your experience, thoughts and feelings, take a distance from them and let go what no longer serves you.  

Another step that you could take to make your way easier to self-forgiveness is to identify and recognize your negative thoughts and cognitive biases. You can achieve this by journaling and writing down those thoughts or your inner self-talk [9].

If you struggle identifying your thoughts, you can let your feelings guide you to them. Every time you have an inconvenient feeling, ask yourself “what goes on through my mind right now?” After having identified some critic or negative thoughts, try to write down a more compassionate or realistic response. For instance, a response to the thought “I should not have done this mistake” could be “I recognize that my behavior was not the expected one, but as a human being, sometimes I make mistakes. This does not mean that I am a failure or that I am bad. I will try to learn from this experience and grow”.  

The way to self-forgiveness can be long and comes with lots of ups and downs, but it is definitely worth doing the first step and start. It is of high importance to know when to ask for professional help. A psychotherapist can always help you identify your thoughts, “difficult” feelings, accept your experience and process your trauma.  


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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Karen

    June 30th, 2023 at 1:25 PM

    I found this to be uplifting and helpful! I am going through a phase of discomfort with myself and my abilities. I seem to be unable to show myself love and gratitude. I have high expectations of myself and I am currently constantly disappointed in my sadness and self-loathing. I am hoping to engage more in articles like this and change my mindset.

  • Gys

    July 7th, 2023 at 4:44 PM

    Excellent article.

  • Elizabeth

    August 21st, 2023 at 8:08 AM

    Please add me. Quite informative articles.

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