Why Is Self-forgiveness So Damn Hard?

The end of life is the most common time for people to embrace forgiveness fully. 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. I stopped fighting out of sheer exhaustion. I had no idea of the gifts that would follow down the path of forgiveness. 

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, Emily,” 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 forgiving world. 

Self-forgiveness is difficult for many reasons: how we are raised, society and cultural expectations, and the inherent nature of the process itself. 

Right & Wrong

Most of us were raised to uphold certain ideologies, passed on through religious doctrine, culture, and core family values. At the center of this is almost always a binary sense of right and wrong. We teach our children that all behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are either good or bad. 

We were admonished when we did something deemed wrong or expressed feelings seen as disruptive to the family unit or the community. The nature of that correction and how we received it helped establish our belief structure and what we must do 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 challenging to identify, integrating this complexity into our personal value structure and worldview makes it less likely to cause harm inadvertently. It also makes healing mistakes easier because we are conscious of our effort and intentions. It seems that many human beings today do not do this early enough in their development to forgo making harmful errors. Teaching ethics and compassion in schools would serve us well in this regard.

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 integrating new understandings and believing that our mistakes define us. Parsing out our experiences from our sense of self sometimes requires intentional effort. (Don’t you wish it weren’t so?)

For people who have experienced abuse or trauma, particularly as a child, there may be an aspect of self-identification that involves feeling powerlessness in seemingly ordinary circumstances. Similarly, a person who has been told they have done irreparable damage might begin to identify as a bad person. 

A sense of victimhood is at play for most people challenged to forgive themselves. People who would more readily claim a perpetrator identity are also being a victim. They are a victim to their flawed nature. And behind that, we find other beliefs about why this is so. Their parents or someone else was “evil,” or the world “made them do it,” for example. Those beliefs deem them powerless to behave differently.

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, and kind. Don’t judge. Then recognize what you get from showing up as a victim or perpetrator. There is a reason, and that reason served you at one time. Have compassion for how you got where you are today but be honest with yourself.

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

As you reflect on how identifying this way has helped 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 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 shows up, compassionately acknowledge the fear 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. The ability to forgive emerges as we peel away outmoded identities and surrender to our healing. 

The Fear of Doing It Again

On the surface, it seems plausible that we are more likely to repeat our mistakes if we forgive ourselves. However, if we dig a little deeper, we discover this assumption is grounded in a misunderstanding about forgiveness. Researchers call it “pseudo-forgiveness,” but it is not forgiveness at all. This name creates unnecessary ambiguity.

Forgiveness is not justifying what happened. When you justify, you are attempting to defend a position. Being defensive is a common step for someone coming to terms with the reality of what they have done, but it is not a stance that leads one to decide forgiveness is necessary. If you are forgiving yourself or seeking forgiveness from someone else solely because you have been told it was what you should do and not because you feel remorse for your actions or the perceived impact, this information will not be of use. Experiencing unpleasant emotions like guilt and regret to one extent or another is a necessary first step in the process. 

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

Trying to Prove We Are Sorry

The impulse to persistently demonstrate 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 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. Perversely, those who carry the heavy burden of remorse gain favor with their critics. It’s no wonder so many people are 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 authentic 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. Eventually, I saw that whenever I begged him for mercy, I also subconsciously asked him to do my work for me. I was putting part of the burden of finding my peace on him. 

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 we are all protected from the pain of another person’s mistakes. That is a compassionate desire and a noble intention. Ironically, we feel that holding on to our shame is compassionate or dignified; in fact, it is the opposite. To forgive is to take a stand for a future that manifests less suffering than the past. 

The self-forgiveness process allowed me to choose differently by integrating my painful experiences into my understanding of who I am. By accepting my past choices and processing the pain, I can consciously apply what I have learned to my choices today. I would be unable to do that had I continued to wallow in victimhood and self-punishment.

Clinging to our pain does not change the past. It limits your ability to be present today and extend unconditional love and empathy. Self-forgiveness allows us to release anything that keeps us stuck in a cycle of shame and will enable 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. To process our experiences, we must get present to our suffering. This discomfort can be profoundly acute when we look at our impact 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. Through the process, we come to terms with our feelings’ full breadth and can embrace them with both curiosity and compassion. Emotions are there for a reason. They are a universal human experience and have a purpose. 

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

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 decreases. With practice clearing out all the pent-up energy, you learn to allow emotions to flow through the body. When new hurts occur, you will still feel sadness, anger, guilt, and so on, but when they come up, you acknowledge them and let them move through you without resistance or analysis. Feelings become integral to what it means to be a whole human rather than something to be controlled or denied. 

When I 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.

I would cry so intensely that I could not believe it. But, because I was so exhausted from the fight for survival, I let it flow. Then I noticed something that changed my life. I noticed that the pain usually lasted less than five minutes when I didn’t analyze or judge what was happening and responded gently. 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. Instead, it let me peek past the illusion of suffering and recognize the potential of wholeness inside me. 

Self-forgiveness is hard. But you can do it. And I promise it will be worth the effort. How we are reared plays an undeniable role in forgiveness. The expectations of others and societal norms also impact how we approach healing. We need 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 gets easier, and because we are learning to be a person we can love and respect, the need for self-forgiveness becomes less frequent.

Becoming a forgiving person 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.