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.
Girl sewing courtesy of crimfants
Boy sleeping on the homework is courtesy of Microsoft public images
Siblings hugging courtesy of Weird Beard
It’s so interesting that the physician and the psychologist suggested different things. How wonderful that one of the pieces of advice worked for Greta.
I think the psychologist was thinking like a child and the pediatrician was thinking like an adult.
Greta did not need to feel included in the new baby’s care or to think he belonged to her. She wanted answers about why she was replaced. Thinking that way (which Dr. Bill discovered by asking questions of Greta, rather than just of her parents)led him to a big shift in his thinking about her behavior. In the ABCDE model, A=new baby, B=I have been replaced because my parents do not love me anymore, C=Anger (I am angry with myself for causing this), D=It is not my fault–my parents made a baby to join our family. I can forgive myself E=I feel better! I don’t need to punish myself!
Look! I can make the baby smile and laugh! Happy!! 🙂
Sherri, have you seen the research on self compassion?
What a great day to run across your article! I just wrote about the guilt of motherhood – worrying about whether or not I’m being a good enough mom. You can read it here… http://igotmompower.com/archives/1108
Thanks for offering a resource to help!
Nice article thank you!
I am suffering a similar lack of self-forgiveness at the moment. I am the perpetrator, although I would like with all my heart not to think that I am. I have been involved in an affair with a married man for 3 years and whilst I tried in the beginning to stop him pursuing me, I eventually succumbed and allowed the relationship to run its course. Ultimately he left his wife and despite trying to convince me that he would have left her anyway, I still feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for what she is going through. No matter how I try to rationalise my feelings, I land up obsessing about the fact that her pain has been directly caused by my inability to keep her husband away from me. The end result is that we are now involved in a relationship while he attempts to sort out and finalise his divorce from her and we live in and share the same community so I am often running into her at school or passing her along the road somewhere and whenever I do, I feel something close to panic as I am unable to deal with the guilt, shame, sense of betrayal, call it what you will.
I have thought about presenting myself to her so that she can tell me what she thinks of me or vent her anger and frustration at me but my family say that it wouldn’t be healthy for either of us at this stage as she is still behaving like the victim and will not be interested in my side of the story or in forgiving me. So I’m now at a point where I need to do something myself in order to move beyond these destructive feelings and get on with a more compassionate and constructive life without her forgiveness.
But where to start?
Any time there has been a breach of trust, such as an infidelity, it is asking a lot of all of the people involved to be forgiving of each other. That is interpersonal forgiveness, and it needs to be freely given by the people who have been harmed. It is not something that you are really in charge of, though of course you may ask.
If you continue in a relationship with the woman’s former husband, she might ask why she ought to forgive you. Why do you think she should? How will it benefit you to hear her vent? Would you feel somehow justified in your behavior if she seems out of control with anger at you? What if she is overwhelmingly sad and feeling powerless? How can your request for forgiveness make her–or you–feel better?
A good place to begin might be loving kindness meditation. It can increase your ability to see things from another person’s perspective. It reduces inflammation and distress, too. Your panic–fear of future negative emotion even worse than what you feel now (Caught!!)–can be reduced once you are a more effective, practised meditator.
Here is an article about loving-kindness meditation: Open Hearts Build Lives:
Positive Emotions, Induced through Loving-Kindness Meditation,
Build Consequential Personal Resources http://www.unc.edu/peplab/publications/BLFopenhearts.pdf
Work with a counselor or coach with experience in this area. Don’t go it alone!
Robyn and Sherri – I agree meditation is a great place to start. But to get the benefits you might find it useful to watch this video.
I do adult forgiveness interventions as part of a larger-scope seminar and so have seen the healing effects of forgiving oneself hundreds of times. It always seems that self-unforgiveness is deeper and more painful than interpersonal unforgiveness. Even for interpersonal unforgiveness, there is usually an element of self-blame by the victim. Although the article focuses on children, adult self-unforgiveness is extremely common.
Robyn, it would be nice to get forgiveness from the other, but to seek it requires the other to do something for you to make you feel better, which may be offensive to her. She is responsible for letting go of her resentment of you, and you are responsible for forgiving yourself and making amends if possible. Take responsibility for what you can control, and only for that which you can control. One of the advantages of religious belief is that you can go to a higher “other” to receive forgiveness. I don’t know whether this is an option for you. If not, a counselor or confidante can help. I believe there is research on the value of confession somewhere.
I think this article is very interesting. Coming from a person who is extremely self-analytical, there have been many instances where I have felt self-blame and it has been difficult to forgive myself. After reading through the steps of self-forgiveness, my question is how much of the process (if any) has to do with interactions with the person/people who are involved in the situation that causes the blame? The reason I ask is because I have been feeling a great deal of guilt for my relationship with my brother who passed away in a motorcycle accident about 2 months ago. I am 22 and he was 18 – we were very close growing up and stayed in touch after I started college but, naturally, he began have his own friends, jobs, and relationships and we didn’t get to spend as much time together as when were living in the same city. I feel so guilty for all the times I decided not to come home for the weekend or call him just to talk more often. I think I have come to the decision phase where I desire more positive feelings but then I feel selfish for wanting these things to simply make me feel more at peace. I can’t speak to the person from which the guilt stems from so how can I overcome these feelings without having any true physical closure?
Grieving a loss is deeply painful, and anger is one of the many feelings elicited, especially when there has been an accident. What you describe is very common when we grieve, especially if it is a traumatic loss. A person who has lost someone suddenly did not have time to say goodbye, or know that they might regret having made different choices about how they spent their time. In trying to make the senseless meaningful, it can be hard to know whether to blame oneself in some way, or to blame the person who died, even though this won’t usually help.
I’m sorry that this has happened and that it is so painful for you. I hope that you are able to find a grief therapist to help you with some of your concerns, which may be beyond the scope of an internet article.
I’ve just reread this article, Sherri, and it’s wonderful, just wonderful. Thank you.