The Secret of Forgiving Yourself

We’re  into Lent and, as I noted on the show today, it’s a time where lots of us will end up facing some degree of temptation to beat up on ourselves for failing in our efforts to fulfill our Lenten penances.  Beyond this, though, forgiving oneself for one’s failings and struggles is a constant struggle.  It can be hard to know what forgiving yourself means much less how to do it.

As I’ve shared before, St Augustine said that  forgiveness is what happens when we “surrender our natural desire for revenge.”  In other words, at the point we stop wanting to hurt someone for having hurt us, we have forgiven them.  (Reconciliation is a separate issue, but that’s another post). So how does this apply to forgiving oneself?

To forgive ourselves doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook.  It means refusing to give into the temptation to heap coals on ourselves for having failed.  St Francis de Sales, in his Introduction to the Devout Life, reveals the folly of this approach when he notes that our sins tend to be a flawed attempt to make ourselves feel better.  Therefore, the worse we make ourselves feel about our sins and failings the more likely we’ll be to sin again in that same pathetic attempt to make ourselves feel better for having sinned!  It truly is a vicious spiritual cycle. If we were to apply Augustine’s formula for forgiveness to ourselves, we’d have to say thatforgiving ourselves means surrendering our natural desire to hurt ourselves… for having hurt ourselves.   Think about that a minute.  How quick are we to heap pain on ourselves for having hurt ourselves?  Does that even make sense?  How is that supposed to help?

Let’s take this a step further.  Research on effective apologies has some application to this process of forgiving ourselves.  If someone makes a good apology, it will usually have  three components (at least for a serious problem.  Lesser offenses can be healed by apologies with fewer components). First, the person expresses empathy–they make some expression that says they understand how much and how deeply they hurt us.  Secondly, they propose a plan of restitution, that is,  they say what they want to do to heal the hurt or make things right again.  Third, there is the recognition of an objective standard; this is, the person apologizing doesn’t try to pawn it off by saying “you’re too sensitive”  or “you expect too much.”   Instead, the person making the apology admits that the offended party has a right to have expected more from the offender.

How would we apply this to ourselves?  We know that we are truly sorry for our sins and failings, not if we never do it again (which is the ideal, but also a long process) but rather  if we a) can articulate how deeply our sinful actions have and are hurting us  b)can describe a concrete plan by which we would like to make a real change in our lives and c) can admit that we have a right to expect more and better from ourselves and that God’s grace makes achieving that standard possible.

If we can include these three components in our “apology to ourselves” if you will, we can know that we are truly sorry for what we have done to hurt ourselves which will make letting go of the desire to hurt ourselves for having hurt ourselves that much easier.  IF we are having problems forgiving ourselves, chances are, one of these three things is missing.  Just like it would be if we were having a hard time forgiving someone else.

This Lent, if you would like to experience more peace in your heart, I would encourage you to give up…beating up on yourself.

If you’d like to learn more about what it takes to forgive yourself and start cooperating with God’s plan of healing for your life, check out The Life God Wants You To Have:  Discovering the Divine Plan when Human Plans Fail.

Dr. Gregory Popcak


Dr. Gregory Popcak is the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to tough marriage, family, and personal problems.

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  • BillinJax

    Even some who call themselves Christians unknowingly refuse to surrender
    completely because of this single most revealing and unique characteristic in
    their loving God’s nature, Forgiveness.
    This trait “separates” us from all the others and is the universal
    identifying mark of true Christianity.
    Divine Love came to us through Christ, God’s merciful truth, the soul’s
    nourishing light, the gift of eternal life. He personified it and embedded it
    into his Church on earth that we would be able to build that Church’s
    foundation on the rock (St. Peter) and that the gates of hell would not prevail
    upon it. He made it very clear when he said “there is more joy in heaven over
    one sinner who repents…” Those who could not tolerate such divine mercy
    rejected Him. Some religions, like the Mohammedans, refused to believe in his
    divinity because of this precept.
    “I’ve come for sinners, not the righteous” He said. Surrendering to God’s
    nature must include an oath to forgive. This and only this will complete our
    surrender and give us citizenship in the “people of God.” It frees us to follow
    him in truth and light to live the abundant life he wants for us.
    Here is a passage from one of my favorite books of reflection, “That Man is
    You!” by Fr. Louis Evely, which explains this very well in his chapter on Forgiveness.
    [“You see, forgiving kindly entails humiliating oneself. The prodigal’s
    father doesn’t want to hear another word about the whole episode. He gives a
    banquet. That’s how God does it, too.
    He alone can make forgiveness something glorious to remember. He’s so glad
    to absolve us that those who’ve afforded Him that joy feel, not like
    disagreeable troublesome pests, but like pampered children, understood and
    heartened, pleasing and useful to Him, and infinitely better than they thought.

    Oh happy fault!” they could cry. “If we weren’t sinners and didn’t need
    pardon more than bread, we’d have no way of knowing how deep God’s love is.”]
    He goes on to say. [“Spiritually, our future consists, not in ceasing to view
    ourselves as sinners, but in seeing that fact ever more clearly, accepting it
    and rejoicing in God’s power and incredible desire to rescue us in spite of

    I’d like to add also that if we are
    to imitate our creator by also kindly forgiving one another there is an obvious
    requirement here to be willing to forgive ourselves. We acknowledge no one is
    without sin and that God is forever ready to welcome us back to communion with
    Him. The sacrament of Penance is always open to us but unless we truly believe
    we can and will be forgiven in the first place there would be no use in seeking
    it. Carrying the burden of sin on ones shoulder over time can erode or dissolve
    our faith in the redeeming nature of our Father’s love. Don’t let that happen.
    Trust in his deep love, surrender to it and go joyfully to him in repentance.
    Give him an opportunity to release his divine mercy. Surrender; empty your
    burden to him that he might fill you with the bountiful graces stored up just
    for you in His Divine Love.

  • Max

    1. I find it annoying when someone issues a false apology. By that I mean that they apologize for how the victim reacted to the offense. That is no apology. That is not taking responsibility for what was done to the victim. You can’t apologize for someone else.
    2. When someone who offends me suggests that I am too sensitive, I respond by telling them that my sensitivity is a gift from God. What is their excuse for their lack of it?

  • There is an answer to the lack of the sense of being forgiven – the failure to find peace and the continuing presence of guilt – in the world today. God provided the answer when Jesus, God the Son, went to the Cross for us. Our forgiveness is found in Him – in His love, in HIs Self-gift, in His divine and infinite mercy. He has the authority to forgive sin! He is God, against Whom our sin ultimately matters!

    God declares from the Cross that our sins are forgiven. Our problem with guilt is not that we are merely failing to forgive ourselves. Our problem is that we fail to believe God, that He has forgiven us. We do not need to try to love ourselves more – we need to believe that God has loved us, and continues to love us. When we believe that we are loved by God – when we really, actually believe it, we are free. When we believe HIM, we are free. Christ has set us free, and the self-bondage of guilt dissolves.

    The problem with guilt is not psychological, it is theological. And Jesus answered the problem on the Cross.

  • Blobee

    WOW! Wow. Wow. Wow. I have never, ever thought of it like this. Just let me say there are things in my life I deeply regret, that mainly hurt myself (and I apologized to others who were hurt by what I did to myself), and although everyone else has forgiven me, I just couldn’t cross the bridge to self-forgiveness. I felt it would be letting myself off easy, as if I didn’t really hold myself accountable for them; as if I were minimizing how significant they were. But given the steps you outlined of 1) seeing how really sinful it was, 2) stopping it, and 3) knowing I should expect more from myself — well, I passed all those steps eons ago and my life now is wholly and completely different.
    Even though I repented and confessed these things long ago, forgiving myself wasn’t something I could do. But after reading this I feel free. Free of them for the first time since I actually repented so many years ago.
    So thank you! Thank you! The Holy Spirit has used you to free a captive! Thank you!