Why Is Self-forgiveness So Damn Hard?

End of life is the most common time for people to fully embrace forgiveness. Perhaps the dying are gifted with a perspective that eludes most of us as we busily scurry through life making plans and chasing goals. Maybe those freed from a relentless obsession with the future see more clearly the delicate and precious nature of the seemingly finite expression that is one lifetime. Grievances vanish, shame dissolves, and acceptance emerges.

Coming to self-forgiveness wasn’t such a poetic process for me, but the reason was essentially the same: I ran out of the energy to resist. Life had me on my knees begging. I hated myself and almost everyone else. Out of sheer exhaustion, I stopped fighting. I had no idea of the gifts that would follow down the path of forgiveness. I just knew I couldn’t keep going in the direction I was headed.

This is not to say that everything fell into place after I forgave. I wish I could tell you it was as easy as saying, “I forgive you, self” and moving on. But, the truth is, forgiveness—of self and others—is hard. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. If it weren’t, we would live in a much more forgiven world.

The reason self-forgiveness is so difficult is a combination of how we were raised, society, and the inherent nature of the process itself.

Right & Wrong

Most of us were brought up to uphold certain ideologies, passed on through religious doctrine, culture, and core family values. At the center of this is usually a binary sense of right and wrong. Most people were taught that all behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are either good or bad.

As children, when we did something deemed wrong or if we expressed feelings seen as disruptive to the family unit, we were admonished. The nature of that correction and how it was received helped establish our belief structure about ourselves and what we must do in order to belong or be loved and accepted by others.

This simplified version of reality serves to facilitate learning the rules when we are young. The issue arises when our learning does not continue. As our experiences become more sophisticated and the space between right and wrong grows ever more difficult to identify, integrating this complexity into our personal value structure and worldview makes it less likely we will inadvertently cause harm. It also makes healing mistakes easier. It seems at least, that many human beings today do not do this early enough in their development to forgo making harmful errors.

Identifying As The Victim or The “Bad Guy”

Human beings learn from experience. That’s a very good thing indeed. Imagine the mess we would have if we all kept making the same mistakes over and over again! But, there is a difference between learning from what has happened and taking on our missteps as “who we are.” Because this “taking on” is somewhat natural, we sometimes have to work to create space between our experiences and who we are choosing to be.

For people who experienced abuse or trauma, particularly as a child, there may be an aspect of self-identification that involves feelings of powerless in seemingly ordinary circumstances. Similarly, a person who is told they have done irreparable damage might begin to identify as a bad person. What may be traumatic for one person is not necessarily so for someone else. When you reflect on your experiences and how they have impacted you try not to “compare scars” or fall into the diagnosis trap. If something changed the way you see the world or yourself in a limiting or painful way, it is trauma.

For most people challenged to forgive themselves, a sense of victimhood is at play. The things they have done to hurt others or themselves are experienced as who they are, rather than what they have done. People who would more readily claim a perpetrator identity are also being a victim. They are a victim to their own flawed nature and behind that part of their identity, you find other beliefs about why this is so. Their parents or someone else in their life was “evil” or the world “made them do it,” for example.

To unpack these limiting aspects of how we see ourselves, we begin with self-compassion. If the idea of having compassion for yourself is foreign or seems ambiguous, think of it as treating yourself the way your image of a perfect mother would treat you. Be tender, patient, kind, and don’t judge. Then, recognize what you get out of showing up in the world as a victim or perpetrator. There is a reason and it may have served you at one time. Have compassion for how you got where you are today but be honest with yourself.

It’s important to recognize that being a victim or the “bad guy” is never an authentic expression of who we are. Choosing to continue living this way perpetuates harm by blocking our ability to genuinely connect with others. In other words, you can’t find real happiness by pretending to be powerless. Identifying as powerless, even in part, let’s us avoid taking full responsibility for our actions.

As you reflect on how identifying this way has served you, allow yourself to feel grateful for that service. Thank the powerlessness for helping you get where you are today and release it. 

The last step in the process of unpacking this limiting way of being in the world is to pay attention to how you are showing up today and begin to make small adjustments. When the impulse to give in to the old narrative rears its head, compassionately acknowledge the fear that is causing you to give away your power and choose differently

None of us have to be martyrs to our circumstances; instead, we can learn to take skillful action in the present moment and accept responsibility for all our actions. As we learn to peel away outmoded identities and surrender to our healing, the ability to forgive emerges.

The Fear of Doing It Again

On the surface, it seems plausible that if we forgive ourselves, we are more likely to repeat our mistakes. If we dig a little deeper, however, we discover that this assumption is grounded in a common misunderstanding about what forgiveness is.

Forgiveness is not justifying what happened. It is not condoning harmful behavior. If it caused harm, it is not okay. You know this or you wouldn’t feel bad about what happened. When we justify, we are attempting to defend our position. We may actually believe we are in the right or we may simply be pretending to believe we are right to win. This is a common step for some in the process of coming to terms with the reality of our remorse but it is not a stance that leads one to decide forgiveness is necessary.

On the contrary, self-forgiveness is about taking responsibility for our actions and doing what we can to make amends. We aren’t letting ourselves off the hook of accountability but, it’s fair to say, if the “hook” is emotional suffering, we are releasing that part of the impact of our mistakes. That is a good thing for everyone involved.

Forgiving ourselves is an act of self-empowerment that leads to genuine grace and transformation. This is because as we learn to love and accept ourselves as we are, we instinctively engage in behavior that reflects this love—including asking for what we need, setting clear boundaries, communicating with transparency, and extending compassion to ourselves and others. We learn to make better, bolder choices as we free ourselves from the burden of the emotional baggage non-forgiveness bears.

Trying to Prove We Are Sorry

The impulse to persistently prove our regret may come from the powerlessness we experience over our emotions. We may be so remorseful that we try to get others to feel sorry for us or let us off the hook (which won’t actually resolve the pain).

It makes sense that so many of us attempt to prove that we are sorry by treating our remorse like the cross we will willingly bear. Society loves to see the bad guy suffer. In a perverse way, those who carry the heavy burden of remorse gain favor with their critics. It’s no wonder there are so many people trapped in a cycle of martyrdom and shame.

Sometimes we believe that the only way those we have hurt will acknowledge the extent of our sorrow is to let them know how much we are willing to suffer for our mistakes—not knowing that this does not provide true comfort to the other person.

When my healing journey through forgiveness began, I spent a lot of energy telling my son how sorry I was. I eventually came to see that every time I begged him for mercy, what I was really doing was asking him to do my work for me. I was putting part of the burden of finding my peace on him. And I was subliminally telling him that because of the things I had or had not done,  he was broken; that, somehow, he was not who he was supposed to be.

I believe that nobody has the power to take another person off their path—not even one’s parents. We cannot know what another person’s journey is meant to be. Of course, I would much rather not contribute to my son’s (or anyone’s) suffering. For most of us, we would prefer a world where all are protected from the pain of another person’s mistakes. That is a compassionate desire and a noble intention. Ironically, we feel that to hold on to our shame is compassionate or noble; in fact, it is the very opposite. We are either in the energy of love, or we are not. That is our contribution. To forgive is to take a stand for a future that manifests less suffering than the past.

The process of self-forgiveness allowed me to choose differently by integrating my painful experiences into my understanding of who I am. By embracing the truth of all I have done and choosing to process the pain, I have the advantage of consciously applying that learning and growth to the choices I make today—which I would not be able to do had I continued to wallow in victimhood and self-punishment.

As I learned many years ago, and as I now teach my clients, clinging to our pain does not change the past. It only changes your ability to be present today and to extend unconditional love and empathy. The process of self-forgiveness allows us to release anything that keeps us stuck in a cycle of shame, and allows us to grow our capacity to love ourselves and feel a deep connection with others.

It’s Painful as Hell

Perhaps the biggest reason self-forgiveness is difficult is inherent to the process itself. In order to process our experiences, we must get present to our suffering. This discomfort can be profoundly acute when we look at the impact we have had on others. Coming face-to-face with the regret and shame we feel requires both surrender and a warrior spirit.

Self-forgiveness is painful but it’s not too painful. When we engage in the healing process with intentionality and structure, it is no longer overwhelming. Through the process, we come to terms with the full breadth of our feelings and are able to embrace them with both curiosity and compassion. Feelings are there for a reason. They are a universal human experience and have purpose.

Without regret, we would not know how to act in the world. Without anger, we might not be compelled to take action. Uncomfortable feelings serve an important function by helping us make meaning of our experiences and choose how to navigate through life. The problem is not having them; it is holding on to them or not allowing them to move through us as they are meant to.

The intensity of the pain you feel at the beginning of the process is the worst it will ever be. Every time you let yourself feel again, you are releasing stored energy. Think of the emotional energy as a tube under pressure. At first, the intensity can seem scary. But every time you allow yourself to feel, the pressure inside the tube is cleared a little more. With practice in clearing out all the pent up energy, you learn to allow emotions to flow through the body. This process becomes natural and easy. When new hurts occur, you will still feel sadness, anger, guilt, and so on, but when they come up, you simply acknowledge them, and let them move through you in the absence of resistance or analysis. Feelings become an integral part of what it means to be a whole human rather than something to be controlled or denied.

When I first started allowing the pain I had locked in my body for 35 years to move through me—by “allowing,” I mean that the pain came and I didn’t resist it—it felt like being kicked in the stomach by an MMA fighter. I would lose my breath and fall to my knees when I became present to how I felt about my mistakes as a mother.

I would fall to my knees and cry so intensely, I could not believe it. It sucked, but because I was by then so exhausted from the fight for survival, I let it flow. Then I noticed something that changed my life. I noticed that when I didn’t analyze or judge what was happening and responded gently, the pain usually lasted less than five minutes. I would feel tired afterward but also lighter. And each time, I felt like I could breathe just a tiny bit more. It wasn’t disruptive at all. Rather, it was letting me peek past the illusion of my suffering and recognize the potential of wholeness inside of me.

Self-forgiveness is hard. But, it can be done. And, I promise it will be worth the effort. How we are rared plays an undeniable role in forgiveness. The expectations of others and societal norms also impact how we approach healing. We need to take time to consider the developmental and interpersonal factors that influence how we see ourselves and the world. This frees us to embody the true meaning of forgiveness.

Clearing out all the stored pain from past transgressions is the next step. With practice, two things happen. It both gets easier, and because we are learning to be a person we can love and respect, the need for self-forgiveness becomes less frequent.

Learning to become forgiving is a journey that demands honest reflection, formed values, and intentional living. The reward is peace with the past, choice in the present moment, and a future filled with whatever a healed heart, mind, and spirit can imagine.