We often think of forgiveness as something that we do on behalf of others. That’s called interpersonal forgiveness. Unlike gratitude, however, which makes the giver and receiver feel good, forgiveness is more of a one-way street. Forgiveness makes the forgiver feel better—oftentimes much better—but the receiver can be unaware of having been pardoned. It is often better that way, too. Imagine offending someone unknowingly only to have them tell you how you have been absolved of your transgression! You might find the forgiver at best magnanimous, at worst arrogant.
So what happens when you are unable to forgive yourself for a transgression, especially one that harms only you?
Self-BlameSelf-forgiveness is a tricky business. After her new baby brother was born, not quite-three-year-old Greta accused her mother, “If you really loved me, you would not have had that baby!” With great authority she commanded, “Take that baby back to the hospital where you got him from and leave him there!” In the coming weeks, Greta began to bang her head on the kitchen floor and pulled handfuls of hair from her scalp. You could say she was jealous, or angry, or that she was experiencing extreme sibling rivalry. As she felt less and less powerful to revert to her life before her brother arrived, Greta’s behavior became more and more extreme.
Her parents spoke to the pediatrician who told them to spend more time with Greta and to include her in all of the new baby’s care. Surely Greta was old enough to help, and this would make her feel included. Unfortunately, things did not get better at home. Greta’s parents took her to a psychologist who had a very different approach.
Dr. Bill recognized that Greta was trying to take on responsibility, alright. She was trying to get her parents to take the baby back to the hospital. It was her hoped-for goal in every waking day. “What must I have done that led to this?” she thought. When she was ineffective, Greta blamed herself for “that baby” and her behaviors were evidence that she needed to be “beaten up” for her lack of success, something that her parents were not doing. What Greta needed was to be able to forgive herself for causing the baby to arrive in the first place (seems funny to an adult but very real to a child) as well as to feel worthy of her parents’ love and affection. Notice that Greta did not blame her parents for having “that baby.” It was all her fault!
Failure to Self-Forgive
Children are often victims of their own failure to self-forgive. The classic example for preschoolers is the new baby one, above. “I must not be good enough. My parents don’t love me enough. I have been replaced.”
For school-aged children, it is lies about schoolwork. Brandon’s lies were directed first to his parents, “Yes, I did my homework. Now can I play?” and then to teachers, “I did the work but left it in the bus,” and then to himself: “I don’t have any more work.” For school-aged children, lies about homework soon become habits. It becomes nearly impossible to complete the growing collection of missing work and the ongoing work, and before long, lying can escalate to hiding a book or backpack, or blaming a classmate or even the teacher for unfinished work. Even though the child is his own victim, he is often unable to see past the fear of retribution on the part of an angry parent and instead perpetuates the lies.
Researched Benefits of Self-Forgiveness
Julie Hall (University of Rochester Medical Center) and Frank Fincham (Florida State University) have found that self-forgiveness is associated with positive self-esteem, and higher life satisfaction. Lack of self-forgiveness, though, is associated with higher neuroticism, depression, anxiety, and hostility. Unlike interpersonal forgiveness where guilt might lead to empathic concern for another and conciliatory behavior, self-forgiveness seeks to remedy feelings of shame: not measuring up, self-destructive behaviors, avoidance, and attributing blame for one’s own behaviors to someone else. Seligman’s explanatory style triad—the problems are personal, permanent, and pervasive– would likely be present. Hall and Fincham suggest that self-forgiveness can lead to restoring one’s self-respect by moving through four phases.
- The uncovering phase consists of recognizing denial, guilt, and shame.
- The decision phase includes having a change of heart and wanting more positive feelings.
- During the work phase, the person develops new self-awareness and self-compassion.
- Finally during the outcome phase, the person is able to stop activating painful thoughts about the offense and can choose new constructive behaviors.
Even the most virtuous of us commit transgressions. At the beginning of this article I said that self-forgiveness is tricky and it is, since it’s very easy to forgive yourself through self-deception or rationalizing, ex-post-facto thoughts. Whether you harbor shame or guilt for something that you have done or not done (not completing an assignment and lying about it) or something that you think was your fault (causing someone such disappointment that they replaced you), self-forgiveness can be more difficult to remedy than interpersonal forgiveness.
Practicing letting oneself be forgiven, however, has measurable benefits. Unlike interpersonal forgiveness, where the perpetrator is forgiven by the victim, in self-forgiveness, the self gives up guilt and blame and exchanges them for self-compassion and steps toward constructive, rather than destructive, behavior. Sometimes kids take on too much responsibility, as in the case of Greta, who believed the baby brother was her fault. Other times they appear to take on no responsibility, as in the case of Brandon. The link is that they are blaming themselves for something that does not seem to be getting them more of what they really want.
Greta eventually decided, with her parents’ help, that it hurt to bang her head. She learned to verbalize her fear that she had caused the baby brother and discovered that (gasp!) she had not had anything to do with it. Brandon confessed to his parents and teachers that he had been lying for a long time. He asked for help to be held to a standard of honesty.
Are you “guilting” yourself? Especially in cases where there is no victim, you owe yourself an honest self-appraisal, self-forgiveness, and some steps toward behaviors that will lead to higher self-esteem and life-satisfaction.
For more on this topic, see John Yeager’s Promoting Self-Forgiveness in Youth.
Note: Greta and Brandon are not the children’s real names.
Hall, J.H. & Fincham, F.D. (2008). The Temporal Course of Self-Forgiveness. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(2), 174-202.
Hall, J.H. & Fincham, F.D. (2005). Self-Forgiveness: The Stepchild of Forgiveness Research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(5), 621-637.
Neff, K. D. (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. New York: HarperCollins. (Added later)
Seligman, M. E. P. (2006). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. 2nd Edition. New York: Vintage.