We often stress the importance of forgiving others, using phrases like comparing holding onto grudges to ingesting poison and hoping for someone else’s suffering. I fully endorse forgiving others and preserving inner peace and joy despite external actions. But can you extend forgiveness when it is something you haven’t yet bestowed upon yourself? How does one navigate the practice of forgiving others when the journey of self-forgiveness remains unresolved?


Most of us are our worst critics. We scrutinize, analyze, and criticize every aspect of ourselves. We say things to ourselves that we would be reticent to verbalize to a stranger. You call yourself names like stupid, fat, useless, unlovable. You turn down opportunities because you think you are not worthy of them. You wallow in shame. You rehash scenes when you were less than your best self. Some of you have a “highlight” reel where you replay all the mistakes you have ever made. You beat yourself up over any poor decisions you have made. You hold on to negative emotions about yourself and never let go of past shortcomings. You blame yourself for every tragedy or challenge that befalls you.

According to psychologists, forgiveness is defined as “a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness. … Forgiveness does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean condoning or excusing offenses.” Forgiveness also does not mean that you do not take action to ensure that you protect yourself from further harm. Dear friend, what happens when your unforgiveness is directed inward? What happens when you have taken to criticizing yourself daily?

A while back, I got into a fender bender. It was my fault. The car I hit sustained no damage, and the driver was unhurt. I was not hurt either, but my relatively new car required thousands of dollars of repair. I was devastated. More accurately, I was disgusted with myself. Sitting by the side of the highway awaiting a tow truck, I gave myself a tongue-lashing I would never visit on anyone else.

How dumb are you? How utterly irresponsible can you get? What in the hell is wrong with you? Must you always waste money? When will you ever learn? Look at the mess you have created! You brought this on yourself. Are you happy now? My husband, who was at work, called to check on me, and I did not want to speak with him. I felt guilty about interrupting my son’s day by asking him to drive out to pick me up. Everyone in my family was happy I was unhurt. It is just a car, they reminded me. Your life is what matters. That was not good enough for me. I had to punish myself. I isolated myself. I was in a funk for weeks. I deserved punishment. I deserved to hurt. I had zero grace for myself.

I had been down this road before. As a young woman, I had made a decision to terminate a pregnancy. It was not an easy choice, but I made it when I was consumed by the guilt of bringing shame to my family. I could not imagine how hurt my parents would be to know I had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. I was too cowardly to face the consequences of my choices, so I found an alternative that made sense then but would haunt me for years. I may have hidden my shame from the world, but there was no escaping the guilt and regret that dwelt within.

Years later, when I experienced not one, not two, but four miscarriages in a row, I was convinced I was getting my just punishment. Although I had long repented and asked forgiveness from God, I could not forgive myself. To make matters worse, the ‘punishment’ not only affected me, but it also affected my husband, who was innocent in it all. The combination of grief and guilt was terribly burdensome. I had to get relief if I were to continue living. I needed to figure out how to forgive myself. There are a few steps I now follow when I need to forgive myself.

I acknowledge I messed up. I do not sugarcoat it. I address the full impact of my actions. Who did I hurt, and how? Next, I examine my emotions. What am I feeling and why? I allow myself to fully own those emotions. Many feel guilt, shame, and great remorse about their choices. As Jenny Scott reminds us, “The emotion of guilt lets us know that our actions or behaviors conflict with our values and beliefs.” That is a great place to start. You would not feel bad if you did not intrinsically know and believe better. You are not a bad person. You are a person who made a choice with undesirable consequences. Guilt can move us to address our actions and make amends. Shame, on the other hand, debilitates. It serves no purpose but to make you feel bad; your despair is never deep enough. Shame will cause you to cut off any healthy attempts to feel better. Do not buy into shame.

I like to understand what led me to the actions I now regret. The better I can understand my motivations and the circumstances leading up to my regrettable choice, the more likely I can foresee and prevent a similar response. Next, I apologize and make amends where I can. Where what was done cannot be undone, I commit to doing no further harm.

I learn from my missteps and teach others to avoid the same. I apologize to myself. I may even write myself a letter. Write what you would say if you had injured someone else and respond how you would if you received a heartfelt apology. Be patient with yourself. Your forgiveness may not be instantaneous. Furthermore, because you are human, you may repeat some mistakes. Should that happen, go through the steps again. Learn again from your mistakes. Make amends. Forgive yourself again.

Forgiveness eases your pain. Forgiveness reduces your stress levels. Forgiveness frees you. Like Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela stated, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” Forgiveness allows love to blossom. Forgiveness engenders empathy and promotes compassion.

Weeks after my car accident, my son was in an accident of his own. In his case, he was run off the road by a trailer. His car was damaged, but he was unhurt. I had nothing but sympathy for him. I wanted to ensure he felt no guilt about our arrangements to get to him or the cost of repairing his vehicle. I gave him all the comfort and grace I could not give myself. I felt empathy because I knew he was most likely beating himself up. It was easy to be that compassionate because I had figured out how to forgive myself.

For the past two decades, I have been able to help others in their healing journeys as they overcome pain, guilt, and shame from sexual abuse, abortions, addictions, etc. I can do this work because of what I have experienced myself. My pain has given me an understanding and empathy for others I would not have otherwise.

Forgive yourself because the alternative is angst, despair, low self-esteem, and isolation, and these always lead to more poor choices. Forgive yourself so you can love yourself and others. Forgive yourself because no one is infallible. Forgive yourself because you are worth it.

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