To forgive is defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, to cease to feel resentment against (an offender).1 But what happens when the offender is oneself? Self-forgiveness is something that can be hard for a person to grasp. It can be easy to get wrapped up in wanting forgiveness from others, to make ourselves feel better about the actions committed, but when it comes to the wrongdoing that we do to ourselves, it can be the hardest to forgive. Per-Erik Milam, a professor at the University of Gothenburg, talks about the idea of self-forgiveness, as being something that is an uncontroversial part of our common psychological and moral discourse, 2 it is unarguable that self-forgiveness is detrimental to our society, without it we would not be able to function in our society. Self-forgiveness though, can be dangerous to oneself, because it can bring shame and unwanted guilt to you, as the wrongdoer. With bringing unwanted, harmful effects to a person, self-forgiveness can be a burden that we must deal with, in order to grow as people and mature within our lifetimes. To really understand self-forgiveness though, four categories must be stated. The first is going to be, societal pressures, followed by guilt and shame, next, the burden of self-forgiveness, and ultimately, importance of self-forgiving.
The influence of society can be crucial in relation to self-forgiveness. With norms being different around the world, we also add in a level of ethics to this topic. For example, in one society, it can be okay for parents to spank their children and not feel bad, whereas in another, it can be seen as child abuse. In the society where spanking as punishment, there should be no self-forgiveness, or the pressure of self-forgiveness because all around, it is an okay act. In the society where spanking is looked down upon, when a parent commits that act, they’re going to have to look within themselves for forgiveness. With though, it being wrong, the pressure from society will make them feel bad about the act and force them to reflect on oneself as a person, not just the actions. The added pressure will also ensure that the wrongdoer will look at themselves as a morally bad person, even though the same act is deemed a norm in other societies.
The dangers of self-forgiveness can be derived from negative attitudes oneself portrays during the forgiveness process. Byron Williston outlines this in his article, The Importance of Self-Forgiveness, saying that Self-forgiveness is the forswearing of self-directed negative attitudes like contempt, anger, and hatred.3 Since we cater these negative thoughts, the way we respond will create a deeper self-loathing, one that will become a burden, since we as the wrongdoer, are already disappointed within ourselves. These thoughts will generate an anger that can surpass our original feelings, especially because we must note that we have to fix our feelings in order to forgive ourselves.
With this thinking of self-forgiveness though, it must be recognized that taking responsibility is a way of conforming to outside standards of right and wrong. The influence of others, in regard to self-forgiveness, should be non-existent, because they don’t know what is going on inside the mind of the one seeking self-forgiveness, but since there are societal standards and moldings, the wrongdoer feels the need to look into others for advice or influence, to decide if they’re being right. In order to self-forgive, the stigma of confiding in others and comparing to others must be taken away, because if not, it’ll create a more negative mindset and framework for emotions.
Outside influence plays a key role in the negation of one’s self, because they are the ones who will ultimately judge the decisions made by the wrongdoer. People live in society today to please one another, rarely do we see one completing acts for the greater of oneself, without the acknowledgement of the peers surrounding them. Zenon Szablowinski briefly touches on this in the article, Self-Forgiveness and Forgiveness, by stating, Further, a third party’s assurance that the offence is forgivable may contribute considerably to the completion of the self-forgiveness process. 4The third party can strongly influence the forgiveness by bringing the element of judgment, adding pressure to forgive at a faster pace, or forgive in a way one is simply not comfortable with. When dealing with pressure, one can look at the third party and think to themselves, why can’t I forgive like they can? or they must be better than me because they are able to overcome it. This thought process brings negativity, with comparing, since the wrongdoer fails to look at the positives within themselves, only seeing the negatives.
Guilt and shame play off of each other in a relationship that directly effects self-forgiveness. When dealing with an act that one can deem wrong, such as committing an accident that ends in a fatality, or even committing a crime that wasn’t accidental, both of these entities will be haunting. The effect of these is a moral conflict one plays inside, they play a pro-social behavior that can harm the act of self-forgiveness.
For example, a mother is struggling to provide for her family. She is a regular church goer, and active member of the community. One Sunday, while collecting donations in church, when counting the total, she takes $40 to feed her family. At first, she does not feel guilty for this act, but a couple of weeks later she is recognized for her outstanding work within the church.
The mother, who at first was fine with the decision she made to steal, is now overridden with guilt and shame, because she is seen as a leading figure. As this feeling grows, it is harder for her to forgive what she had done, even though it meant her family could eat for another couple of weeks.
The overriding guilt and shame the women in the example expresses can build up, making it harder for her to forgive herself. Even if she told the church what happened, and they were able to forgive her because of the situation, it would be impossible for the women to forgive. With the override of guilt and shame, it would almost be easier for others to forgive, especially because they are not directly affected.
Negative guilt and shame can bring forth and add unwanted self-esteem problems to a person. It can be unrelated, or even subconscious to the issue at hand, but the underlie will add detrimental consequences. This sort of guilt and shame causes the wrongdoer to hold anger and resentment toward oneself.
It can bring self-sabotage, and overall, take away from what you are trying to forgive. It creates a depression within and makes it hard to form relationships that can be meaningful, stops success, and stops the fulfilling of life pleasures.
The correlation between guilt, shame, and self-forgiveness, with its negativity, can also be seen as something positive. Guilt can encourage someone to feel empathy towards another person. It allows for self-forgiveness by opening a window for self-acceptance. As a person, when overridden with guilt, acceptance is a way to normalize the feelings one is having. By recognizing guilt, a window opens up for change. When changes are made, a person will be able to forgive easier, especially because they see how the guilt can hold them burdened.
It is though, important to distinguish shame from guilt. Shame leads a person to recluse into themselves, it makes one feel inferior and inadequate. With these feelings, a person will be pulled back and unable to forgive themselves for what they have done. Shame is a vicious cycle that is never constructive, and leads to greater feelings of failure and self-preoccupation, allowing for the back stepping of oneself and relationships held. One with issues regarding esteem or shame, will take guilt and twist it into a negative construct, that ultimately prevents growth.
Something that can change both of these into positives though, is acceptance. A person who finds acceptance within themselves will be the one who can forgive what has happened. They realize a mistake was made and they can learn why it was wrong, acknowledge how it made them feel, and eventually move on and grow. With acceptance, the wrongdoer’s esteem is raised, and they are able to create a life that is more fulfilling, because they will know how to handle themselves, and forgive themselves when situations arise that present guilt and shame.
Self-forgiveness is the hardest form of forgiveness, not just because it is hard to forget, but also because as people, we are our harshest critics. It brings emotions of guilt, sadness, shame, and anger. With normal forgiveness, the victim expects an apology, and it is almost assumed that one should apologize for the incident that had occurred. The apology brings power to the victim, because it allows for control of knowing that there doesn’t have to be forgiveness. When the wrongdoer is oneself though, there is a grey area of forgiveness. There is a burden of not deserving the forgiveness, and even greater, the burden of living with whatever the action was at that time.
As people, we tend to hold onto things. We hold onto any feeling that we have ever experienced, whether it be a time where happiness was expressed, or a time of great sadness. The act of forgiveness when there is no possible way of forgetting is a huge burden within itself. How are you supposed to accept that a person forgives, when you yourself cannot? How can you cope with knowing that the victim has forgotten, when you yourself can’t erase what happened? Maybe the answer isn’t that the action should be erased but should be embraced.
When you forgive another, the judgement is gone, and healing can begin. When you forgive yourself, the same concept applies, here is acceptance and the ability to move on is set into place. The burden though, is when one simply cannot move on from the action. There is an underlie that as a person, there is an inability to house that forgiveness, because as a person, we are our harshest critics. Burdens can come when one cannot see the whole picture. People tend to focus on one thing at a time, on one situation or event at a time. When the focus becomes tunnel, it is hard to see what can become whole.
There is nothing else besides a trap of cyclical, degrading thoughts. Why wasn’t I better? What could I have done differently? Why am I not good enough? These are just a few thoughts that can come up when dealing with forgiveness. These are burdensome because they focus on the negative, and not what was positive. Examples of positive, forgiving thinking are, it happened, its time to move on, or I can’t change the past, but I can control how I act in the future. The burden here though, can be the refusal to forgive because one knows they will change, so why speak words when actions will be greater? This crosses into a realm that can be a burden as well, because it paints the wrongdoer as someone who refuses to take action and be accountable for oneself. Without the aspect of accountability, there cannot be any sort of forgiveness.
As we learn to forgive ourselves, it takes a sort of personal action to create the energy to admit our wrongdoings. The burden of not being able to forgive, is pride. Pride can be seen as something good, pride in an accomplishment, for example. What happens though, when someone has so much pride, they refuse to admit they are wrong? This fuels a fire that can break off relationships with others and even with the self. The burden here is that without the knowledge of forgiveness and acceptance, there is a void in which happiness cannot fill. Without humility in one’s actions, there is an esteem that will paint the wrongdoer as someone who refuses to grow up and accept the situation. The harsh reality, and something that a majority of people find to be a burden, is that it is impossible to change the event that took place. There is no restoration of the harmed relationships, and anything said cannot be taken back.
Overall, the ultimate burden when it comes to self-forgiveness is self-love. Someone who has love within themselves is going to be quick to forgive what they did, because they can go into and come out of a situation knowing that no matter what, they will love themselves. Without self-love, we cannot self-forgive. How does one obtain self-love?
First, there is the idea of being mindful. With mindfulness, it is important to make sure that one is in an open, curious, and overall non-judgmental state of being. This is hard though, because as humans, there will always be a form of closed off judgement. Second, the wrongdoer must express a type of self-kindness. Here it is important to extend a sort of care amongst yourself, as you would a close friend or loved one. Once these two forms are acknowledged and achieved, it is possible to move on and realize the third aspect, humanity. Everyone is human, a struggle that is often portrayed is that as a person, no flaws exist. Once these flaws are recognized, the ability to open up and self-love is ever prevalent.
Self-love though, takes time and takes skills on top of the above mentioned. Let us say that one does love themselves, to put it all to practice, there must be recognition of experiences, whether they be joyful or contain suffering. Along with that, there has to be acceptance of feelings. One who self loves can tell what emotion they are protruding without question. Ultimately, the decision must be made if you can forgive yourself, and without self-love, that is simply impossible, making it the biggest burden all together.
IV. Importance of Self-Forgiveness
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