Self-Forgiveness: A Vital Virtue

 > Uncategorized >  Self-Forgiveness: A Vital Virtue
Self-Forgiveness: A Vital Virtue

"To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you."—Lewis B. Smedes


During Oprah's "The Life You Want Class," she discussed forgiveness and told a story of her father seeing someone during his celebration party and him mentioning not forgiving that person for something they did in 2008.  Oprah shared that she told him he needed to forgive, and his response was that he could forgive but not forget.  I can't tell you how many times I have heard this statement.  I know that I am probably guilty of saying it myself at one time or another.  Why are we holding onto resentment so tightly, especially when being unforgiving increases our stress levels and affects our entire well-being?

Did you know that people who practice self-forgiveness have better mental and emotional well-being, more positive attitudes, and healthier relationships?


So, what is the big deal about making a mistake?  The big deal is that we have to admit the ugly truth that we did something wrong, regardless of the size or depth.  Self-forgiveness seems so simple, yet, so hard. The lack of self-forgiveness leads to suffering.  Those highly critical of themselves are more likely to experience significant negativity, stress, and pessimism.  Shame and guilt are deeply rooted in our inability to forgive ourselves due to mistakes that we have made.  Guilt occurs when we behave in a way that we regret.  Shame occurs when we feel our very being is under attack, making us feel embarrassed, undeserving, and incomplete.  Shame is often a secret that is buried deep and leads us to feel very isolated and separated from others.  We struggle with self-correction because it becomes complicated.  After all, at our core, we feel like we were stripped of worthiness, feel inadequate, hopeless, and alone in our pain.  Shame makes us feel like we're not good enough.


According to Forbes (2021), one common thinking distortion that prevents us from exhibiting more self-forgiveness is black-and-white thinking.  Black-and-white thinking is this all-or-nothing type of thinking.  It is A or Z, always or never, good or bad.  There is no gray area or anything in the middle for these folks.    Black-and-white thinking can put us at risk of being overly self-critical or refusing to see our faults.  In addition, black-and-white thinking can prevent us from self-growth and self-compassion, especially when we are hypersensitive to other people's opinions, making it difficult to accept criticism without deep insecurities.


According to Lewis B. Smedes, author of Forgive & Forget: Healing the Hurts, We Don't Deserve.  Without honesty, self-forgiveness is psychological hocus-pocus.  The rule is: that we cannot forgive ourselves unless we look at the failure in our past and call it by its proper name.  Smedes noted that the hurt your heart cries hardest to forgive is yourself for the unfair harm you did to others.  For example, when you cheated on your partner, the memory of a moment when you lied to someone you trusted, when you bullied someone, the recollection of neglecting a child who depended on you, the time you turned away from somebody who called out to you for help, or when you stole from a loved one, to name a few.  Many more memories like the ones mentioned cut us with an honest judgment against ourselves.


Smedes continued to say that the pain we cause other people becomes the hate we feel for ourselves for having done them wrong.  We judge, convict, and sentence ourselves, mostly in secrecy.  When you forgive yourself, you rewrite your chapter.  What you are in your present chapter is not tied down to what you did in the first chapter.  It would be best if you released yourself today from yesterday's scenario.  Oprah shared that Iylana Vanzant told her, "until you heal the wounds from the past, you will continue to bleed." She continued to say that "bleeding" refers to becoming a shopaholic, workaholic, alcoholism, poor relationships, hoarding, victimization, blaming others, lack of accountability, and other addictive and self-sabotage behaviors.


According to Smedes, chances are if you need to forgive yourself, whatever happened has made a negative impact on your life and has changed you in some way, shape, or form.  Your inner judge has become your harshest critic, and you must come to terms with them.  It feels like you are battling a second person.  Here's what you need to do: think back to your past, admit the ugly truth, and declare that whatever you did is irrelevant to your present life—here's why, no matter how you feel about yourself, you cannot change that situation.  I know this sounds easier said than done because that part of yourself who did wrong walks with you everywhere you go, and it feels like there is no way to escape them.  Smedes further noted that you feel like one when you have forgiven yourself, and the split is healed.  This other person inside of you who condemned you so fiercely embraces you now.  Please be clear that you cannot forgive yourself without honesty, and next, you will need a clear head to make way for your forgiving heart.  Forgiveness is about accepting what happened, your inability to change what happened, and your choice to move on.


"Forgiveness is healing….especially forgiving yourself."—Alyson Noel


Oprah stated that we have to give up the hope that the past was different so we don't live another day of could's, should's, and would's.  According to Albert Ellis, a famous psychologist, people live by a set of absolutes and unrealistic demands that they place on themselves, others, and the world—"I should," "I must," and "I ought. He went on to say that absolutes create self-defeating attitudes " These absolutes are illogical and impact your self-worth, which interferes with self-acceptance.  This irrational belief subconsciously conveys that you are not allowed to make a mistake and eludes to perfectionism.  It is not uncommon for people to become depressed and feel shame and guilt.  And yes, unforgiveness does all of that.  Self-forgiveness requires honesty, no matter how brutal that honesty is.  It also requires eliminating the blame game from the equation, and you taking ownership or accountability for your part of the situation.


According to Louis Hay, based on the book a Course in Miracles, forgiveness is the answer to almost everything.  Hay also noted that regret, sadness, hurt, fear, guilt, blame, anger, resentment, and at times, the desire for revenge comes from a place of unforgiveness—refusal to let go and be in the present moment.  Hay said, "Bitterness is like swallowing a teaspoon of poison every day." Most of the work of forgiveness is done in your own heart, so you don't ever have to let whoever knows you forgive them.


As noted several times, unforgiveness can manifest in various mental, emotional, and physical health ailments, such as depression, stress, anxiety, anger, high blood pressure, digestive problems, heart disease, and so on.  Learning to develop a forgiving self by letting go of any anger and not allowing unforgiveness to take an extended vacation inside, will free you, give you peace of mind and an improved attitude.


As a way to get you started on your self-forgiveness journey, here are a few exercises to help you begin freeing yourself:


Journal Questions


  • Carrying the extra luggage of your past makes moving forward feel like you are attempting to climb the snowy mountain of Mount Everest and wondering what were you thinking. What kinds of baggage are you carrying?


  • Set those baggage down ever so slightly, paying attention to the lessons they brought you and the burden you’re releasing as you move beyond them.  How do you want to leave them? Do you want to linger a bit and tell them to fuck off? Do you want to paint them with the bright colors of their lessons and turn them into happiness bags? Do it your way, but leave the weight of it behind and skip ahead toward your future.


Self-Forgiveness Exercise


  • Think of a situation, action, or mistake for which you would like to forgive yourself. Identify any judgments of yourself relating to that situation, and write them down. For example, you might write, “I shouldn’t have done X,Y, or Z. I’m such an idiot.”

Next, forgive yourself for that belief. Write down something like: “I forgive myself for believing I’m an idiot. The truth is _________________” and fill in the blank.


Gratitude Challenge


  • Every day, write down three to five things you’re grateful for. You are not allowed to repeat anything that you are grateful for more than once. This can seem easy at first, however, once you get past I am grateful for God waking me up, or my mother, or father, sister or brother, then it starts to become more challenging. Look for the smallest things to be grateful for such as having an ice cream cone, walking in nature, or getting five minutes of me time.


  • Using a hand held mirror or bathroom mirror. Look into your eyes and say with feeling, “I am willing to forgive!” Repeat this several times. What are you feeling? Do you feel stubborn and stuck? Or, do you feel open and willing? Just notice your feelings. Don’t judge them. Breathe deeply a few times and repeat the exercise. Does it feel any different?


  • Answer these question: Was your mother and/or father a forgiving person? Was bitterness a family way of handling hurts? How did your father and/or mother get even? How do you get even? Do you feel good when you get revenge? Why

Self-Compassion Letter


  • Use this link to write a Self-Compassion Letter to Yourself.