Maybe you neglected to cover a shift at work for someone but later felt like you should have helped. Or maybe you forgot to pick up medicine for your sick spouse, and now they have to go out to get it themselves. Or perhaps you accidentally said something offensive to a friend or family member.
Whatever the situation, all of us will eventually hurt someone, whether it’s intentional or not. Even worse, when we offend those closest to us, feelings of guilt, anxiety, and anger are sure to follow. Negative feelings like these can have negative effects on our relationships with others, on our understanding of our own selves, and on our physical health. Learn more about how to forgive yourself for hurting someone.
What is Forgiveness?
While most people associate forgiveness with a straightforward apology, it is not always so simple. It’s also not as easy as trying to forget a situation that happened or attempting to erase the problem in order to let it go. In reality, forgiveness involves many complex emotions and a lot of work.
More than just moving on from something unpleasant, forgiveness is a major tenet of positive psychology. According to the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, positive psychology encourages well being and contentment in an individual’s life. It emphasizes the belief that an individual possesses, among other traits, the capacity to love, to develop skills, to be original, and to forgive.
In this way, forgiveness is twofold. Our first thought is probably to seek forgiveness from the person we have wronged, but often, we must forgive ourselves, as well. What makes this more difficult is that forgiving ourselves can be much more challenging than searching for forgiveness from someone else.
What is the Difference between Forgiveness and Self-Forgiveness?
Forgiveness of another person and forgiveness of self share many similar emotions. There is often resentment, blame, bitterness, and anger. Frequently, we also experience shame and humiliation during and after hurtful situations. The direction of those feelings is the most obvious difference between these two types of forgiveness.
When another person hurts us, we experience those feelings towards them. However, when we are the wrongdoers, we direct negative feelings towards ourselves.
In The Handbook of Forgiveness, researchers June Price Tangney, Angela L. Boone, and Ronda Dearing developed three definitions of self-forgiveness. It’s no coincidence that all of them involve letting go of self-resentment and cultivating compassion towards oneself instead. The process of forgiving another person versus forgiving oneself is encouraging kindness towards oneself and focusing on positive feelings instead of negative ones.
The phrase “you are your own worst critic” is common for a reason. No one puts more pressure on us than ourselves, and when we make a mistake, no one imposes harsher punishments on us than ourselves. That is why one of the first steps in self-forgiveness is to treat ourselves fairly and not beat ourselves up over a mistake.
Interlaced with forgiveness and the many negative emotions that come along with it are feelings of guilt. Guilt is important because it is a moral feeling that clues us into our wrongdoing. It is because of the guilt that we know that forgiveness is needed.
What is Guilt?
Guilt is one of the most common, most powerful, and sometimes even one of the most harmful emotions we can feel as human beings. It is associated with all kinds of situations and feelings and is often impossible to control.
The hazards of feeling guilty make forgiveness necessary for our well-being. Often, when we think of forgiveness, we think of apologizing to the person we have wronged, yet it can be just as essential and difficult to ask our own selves for forgiveness. When we self-forgive, feelings of guilt and shame lessen, and anxieties are relieved. However, forgiving ourselves for hurting someone requires patience, work, and acceptance of our mistakes.
While guilt often has a negative connotation, it is actually an imperative emotion that provides us with signals we need. Guilt lets us know that there has been a problem and that it needs to be addressed. When we feel shame and stress along with guilt, we know that we have done something wrong and that an apology is necessary.
Guilt and self-forgiveness are intertwined because guilt leads us to the act of forgiving. Although forgiveness may start with another person, it ultimately falls upon the wrongdoer to seek self-forgiveness, as well. Without forgiving oneself, guilt will wreak havoc on our mental, emotional, and physical health.
What Are the Benefits of Forgiving Oneself?
One of the greatest benefits of self-forgiveness is the positive impact it has on our mental, emotional, and physical health.
When we forgive ourselves, we experience stress relief. In a 2015 book titled Forgiveness and Health, researchers Loren Toussaint, Everett Worthington, and David R. Williams found that stress relief is the primary reason that forgiveness is good for our health. Since chronic stress is known to harm our health over time, releasing ourselves of its burden with forgiveness is vital.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, depression, and many other illnesses are possible consequences of the strain of chronic stress.
When we allow ourselves to forgive, we are demonstrating good health practices and protecting ourselves from unnecessary anxiety and physical complications.
For example, a series of four studies published in 2013 by researchers Martin Day and Ramona Bobocel, professors of psychology at Princeton University and the University of Waterloo, respectively, revealed that guilt affects people on a physical level. Their studies showed that people carrying feelings of guilt felt physically heavier than those without.
The first of their four studies showed that unethical acts made people feel heavier while ethical acts had no effect. In this way, the research proved that guilt did, in fact, impact physical well-being.
In the next two studies, Day and Bobocel found that feelings of guilt explained greater weight while other feelings like disgust, sadness, or pride did not have the same effect.
Finally, in their fourth study, participants found physical tasks more challenging after recalling unethical acts but did not have the same feelings after recalling ethical acts.
Day and Bobocel’s research supports the notion that guilt negatively affects our health, making us feel heavier and giving true meaning to common phrases such as “the weight of guilt” and having “a weight on my conscience.”
Guilt and forgiveness go hand-in-hand, so it’s no surprise that one impacts the other. When we feel guilty, it is usually a sign that something has gone wrong and is making us feel anxious and tense. In that way, guilt alerts us to the necessity of forgiveness, which in turn relieves us of the stress caused by guilt, boosting our wellbeing in the process.
How Can One Begin to Find Self-Forgiveness?
While forgiving oneself is a challenging, maybe even daunting, notion, there are a number of steps a person can take in order to begin the process of self-forgiveness.
Practice Converting Negative Emotions into Positive Ones
Transforming guilt from a negative emotion into a positive one by learning from the mistakes that led to guilt in the first place is the best way to begin forgiving yourself. After all, the purpose of guilt is partly to alert us and to let us know that something is wrong and needs a more thorough examination.
A 2018 study by researchers at Intrepid Travel discovered that British people spend six hours every week feeling guilty over a number of different problems like canceling plans on a friend or lying to a partner or family member. Further, the study showed that one in three people learn from their mistakes.
The Intrepid Travel study demonstrates that people have a desire to learn from their mistakes, and evidence for this actually runs much deeper than this particular study.
For example, in 2018, research from Dr. Nicole Anderson at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute revealed that mistakes do indeed help people learn better. This particular study focused on learning in education, testing English speakers with doing translations into Spanish. Participants with wrong answers close to the correct answer were more likely to accurately learn the information than those who made a wild guess.
The Baycrest study shows that people do possess the capacity to learn from mistakes, whether that means learning from factual information or learning from social miscues that resulted in hurting someone. With that knowledge in mind, remember that no matter how difficult it may be, you have the ability to learn from your mistakes. It is this ability that will enable you to begin forgiving yourself by transforming negative feelings like resentment and shame into positive ones like compassion and acceptance.
Be Prepared to Commit to Self-Forgiveness
Forgiveness does not happen overnight. Rather it takes time and work, especially when it comes to directing kindness and tolerance toward oneself. It can be embarrassing to admit that we had hurt someone or made a mistake and even more humiliating to recall the moment when it happened, but both are necessary for forgiveness.
Dedicating oneself to forgiveness does not have to be a chore. Working towards self-forgiveness is actually very healthy and benefits us in a number of ways, as discussed above.
Keep in mind that forgiveness is a process with many stages, similar to the grief process. Make sure to assess the situation, understand what happened, and why it happened the way that it did. Taking the time to grasp why forgiveness is needed fully will encourage the forgiveness process.
In addition, accepting the situation for what it is will aid you in recognizing your mistake and prevent you from any further self-punishment.
Don’t Use Feelings of Guilt as a Punishment
Everybody makes mistakes; what’s important is how we learn from them. All of our emotions serve a purpose, namely to let us know that something is wrong or that we have made a mistake, which then helps us evolve into better people.
An article in Psychology Today from Dr. Guy Winch, Ph.D., described a study that found students were willing to administer electric shocks to themselves in order to show their remorse for withholding lottery tickets from another student. It is worth noting that, despite the lottery tickets’ worth being only a few dollars, the students were still willing to undergo such a drastic punishment.
The results of this study reveal the intensity of self-punishment, especially when used to assuage feelings of guilt. In the same article, Dr. Winch discusses “The Dobby Effect,” named after the house elf in the Harry Potter series, who is prone to harming himself as punishment for supposed wrongdoing. “The Dobby Effect” describes the psychological tendency to use self-punishment to dispel feelings of guilt.
In small doses, guilt can be beneficial to us as a sign that something is not right or that we have made a mistake that needs rectification. If you let guilt run amok, however, there are no benefits to yourself or to anyone else, even the person or people you have hurt.
Though you may feel terrible about what you have done, punishing yourself further by sinking into guilty feelings will only lead to further shame and pain. Instead, it’s best to take responsibility for our actions, no matter how difficult it is to do so. That way, instead of using guilty feelings as punishment, we are free to begin seeking forgiveness from ourselves, and from whomever we have wronged.
Remember That Your Own Feelings of Guilt Affect Those Who Care About You
Your self-pity rubs off on those around you, especially the ones who are closest to you. Nobody enjoys watching the people they love suffer, even if it is self-inflicted. Our family and friends know us very well, and they can tell when something is not quite right. The people around us are sensitive to our facial expressions and postures, picking up on our emotional state from only a look or gesture.
When they recognize that we are mired in guilt and self-reproach, it will cause worry and tension for them because they care about us. It can also cause resentment within the relationship.
Recognize That One Mistake Does Not Define You
Nobody is perfect all the time. If you lost your temper after a long day or accidentally made a rude comment, understand that it was most likely an out-of-character moment. Ensuring that everything you say every day is inoffensive is a noble, albeit rather unrealistic, goal. Once in a while, we are all bound to lose our cool or offend someone. It is important to remember that one moment or word or phrase is not indicative of the person you truly are.
Andrea Brandt, Ph.D., MFT, discussed self-forgiveness in an article published in Psychology Today in 2017. She wrote about the significance of recognizing and accepting feelings of guilt or shame that come along with hurting someone. Because not every person is empathetic enough to acknowledge feelings of guilt, you should appreciate that you are self-aware and capable of making amends.
Dr. Brandt emphasizes the imperfect nature of human beings. No matter the magnitude of the mistake, all mistakes were made because no one is perfect. Keep this in mind when you recall the incident that is bothering you. Repeat it to yourself a few times as a reminder that you are not the only person who has ever made a mistake and certainly not the last. There are probably people experiencing very similar feelings of guilt and shame at the same moment you are.
Take the Time to Apologize
Apologizing is perhaps the most essential step in forgiving yourself. An apology may come at various stages in the forgiveness process. Maybe you want to apologize right away, from the heart to the person you have hurt. Or maybe you would rather spend some time developing a comprehensive apology that can fully describe the situation and how you feel about it.
Whatever your preference, make sure to be patient with whomever you have hurt. Understand that you may have to give the person time and space and that their forgiveness may not happen right away, even after an apology.
Scientific studies demonstrate that an apology is an excellent start to relieve the guilt and anxiety that comes with hurting someone and that it benefits both the giver and the receiver.
In an article published in Psychology Today magazine, apologies encouraged healing from transgression by both the giver and the receiver of the apology. It also demonstrated that apology is an excellent first step in forgiveness, often representing the first stage of forgiveness.
Further, the receiver of the apology no longer feels threatened by the wrongdoer and begins to develop empathy for them. Meanwhile, apologizing helps the wrongdoer shake off guilt and self-reproach. Apologies also allow for a much-needed discussion about the situation that led to the apology in the first place.
Not all apologies, however, are created equal. There are times when a basic “I’m sorry” statement is not enough, and the recipient of the apology will know right away that the apology is not genuine. When seeking to forgive yourself for hurting someone, it is important to remember that the same sincerity is needed both for apologizing to others and to yourself.
How to Deliver an Effective Apology
An effective apology will address the transgression and offer an opportunity for reflection. Because an apology is such an important part of self-forgiveness, making sure to deliver a successful one starts the forgiveness process in a positive place.
In a 2018 study entitled “An Exploration of the Structure of Effective Apologies,” scientists discovered the primary elements of a successful and meaningful apology. They described the six significant factors as the following:
- Acknowledgment of responsibility
- Offer of repair
- Expression of regret
- Explanation of what went wrong
- Declaration of repentance
- Request for forgiveness
While the terms listed above are essential when apologizing to a person you have upset or offended, they are also excellent suggestions when working on self-forgiveness.
The first step, acknowledging responsibility, will help you to assess the situation and discover where the transgression occurred. Offering repair suggests a desire to be forgiven, and an expression of regret demonstrates the sincerity of your apology.
Explaining what went wrong shows that you have thought about the problem and that you are learning from your mistake while declaring your repentance proves the seriousness of your apology. Finally, requesting forgiveness makes it clear that you are sorry, that you know you were wrong, and that you care about their feelings.
When forgiving yourself, apply these same guidelines. Accept what you have done, think about how you will fix it, express how sorry you are, make your desire for repentance known, and forgive yourself for the transgression.
Apologies are vital for the forgiveness of both the self and the other person. What makes an apology so special is the benefit it provides for all people involved. Often, an apology given to the person you have hurt will lead to self-forgiveness, too.
Have an Open Discussion
Sharing our thoughts and feelings can help carry us to forgiveness. Having a conversation with the person you have hurt relieves stress and tension. It should be an honest, open, and frank discussion wherein you offer a sincere apology to the person using the guidelines above and offer them the opportunity to explain why they felt so hurt.
Although this will be a difficult conversation to have, learning about the situation and what exactly offended the other person will help you learn from the mistake. If you are unaware of what went wrong, then you will have no idea of how to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Even though you will most likely want to punish yourself for hurting someone, try to practice self-love instead. Spending some time building yourself up in the face of a mistake will help you transform negative feelings of guilt into more positive ones.
A few ways to pursue self-forgiveness through self-love are to seek out people close to you that make you feel good, to plan an activity that you enjoy, to spend a day doing only things that relax you, or to practice meditation.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a researcher of self-compassion and professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin, found in her studies that people who possess higher degrees of self-love are at a lower risk for mental health issues like depression and anxiety. The research also revealed that these same people were more optimistic about life.
Dr. Neff’s compelling research shows that self-love improves a person’s well-being and thereby encourages kinder self-treatment. When you are able to find compassion for yourself, you will discover the path to self-forgiveness is much smoother.
Try to Put Your Own Ideas into Action
If you want other people to forgive you, you have to learn how to forgive yourself for hurting someone. Do your best not to shame others when they have made a mistake. Remember that you have also been in a position in which you hurt someone else and felt guilty for the transgression.
Holding grudges and enforcing guilt trips builds corrosive resentment in a relationship. The results are no different when we hold a grudge against ourselves. Self-resentment is very common in the face of guilt, but it is not healthy.
Combating self-resentment is a challenge, though practicing self-compassion is an excellent way to ward it off. Resentment and compassion are near opposites, so taking some time to appreciate the good things you have done is imperative to release resentment.
Practice Altruism and Gratitude
Once you have made an apology to the person you have hurt and begun the process of self-forgiveness, altruism can provide a bit of extra encouragement.
The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley lists altruism and forgiveness as two of their ten keys to wellbeing. Performing a selfless act increases our feelings of happiness and self-worth.
Likewise, a study published in the Journal of Adolescence in 2009 showed that gratitude proved to increase a variety of positive emotions in adolescents, including forgiveness. Researchers in this study discovered that because of this, gratitude is able to increase our well-being.
By focusing on positive experiences, such as altruism and gratitude, we can incite the process of self-forgiveness by promoting positive emotions.
No one ever wants to hurt somebody, but inevitably, because we are all human, it will happen at some point. We may not mean to cause harm, but we will, and upon further reflection, we will succumb to feelings of shame and guilt.
It is thanks to guilt that we know a transgression has occurred. We can then begin the process of forgiveness both of the people hurt and of ourselves.
Self-forgiveness is vital in ensuring good mental, emotional, and physical health. It is important to learn from our mistakes and practice self-love so that we can transform negative feelings into positive ones and accept our wrongdoing in order to change shame into compassion.
While self-forgiveness is a challenge that requires time and work, it is worth it in the end when we can treat ourselves with kindness and generosity that we deserve.