Self-forgiveness is a great antidote to shame. In fact, those who experience shame on a frequent basis have difficulty forgiving themselves (Rangganadhan & Todorov, 2010). If we are able to forgive ourselves, we arrive at a place of peace.
You know that feeling. Maybe you beat yourself relentlessly for making that same mistake to the point that you attach this action to your self-worth. What I mean by this is this: your regret has affected how you value and view yourself as a human being.
Now why is self-forgiveness important?
The process of self-forgiveness is similar to that of grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance):
Stage 1 : Self-Forgiveness
You may not be ready to forgive yourself; you may experience denial and be unable to let go of the wrong you made (Hall & Fincham, 2005). In this process, you may feel guilty and attribute this behavior to yourself and think that you are a "bad" person (=shame).
An Exercise For Stage 1:
Start to bring in some self-compassion. Bring in some words of kindness to yourself and validate what you are feeling.
It might look like this: "It's really difficult to feel guilty and shameful. These are painful emotions."
Approach your denial, and work with yourself where you are in this stage.
Here's an example for you to use, but feel free to adjust this to make it seem more natural for you:
"I get it. You don't want to look at what you did wrong. Sometimes it's hard to forgive ourselves."
Stage 2: Self-Forgiveness
This phase is marked by intentionality and the acceptance of your wrongdoing (Hall & Fincham, 2005). You are taking responsibility for your actions; you are gaining self-awareness. You begin to make peace with what you did wrong.
An Exercise For Stage 2:
Brainstorm a list of actions that might allow you to take responsibility for this wrong. Would you need to meet with the person and apologize? Perhaps you could write a letter to this person and acknowledge what you did wrong and what you could do to make it right. This is very similar to Step 9 (Making Amends) in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous (Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, 1989).
If these are impossible, write a list of actions that you would not normally take. For example, if you despise washing the dishes, you might add that to your list. Or maybe, it's making a donation to a charity. The list continues...
Stage 3: Self-Forgiveness
In this final stage, you will attribute meaning to your wrongdoing. Your motivation to act kindly toward yourself will facilitate this self-forgiveness (Hall & Fincham, 2005).
An Exercise For Stage 3:
Similar to the first exercise, you will engage in self-compassion.
If you have difficulty forgiving yourself, I encourage you to write a letter to yourself. Acknowledge what you did wrong, but emphasize how you are human. You might wonder, "Am I giving myself too much slack?" The answer is, no--chances are that you have engaged in self-flagellation and have been too hard on yourself. Then write about how you are sorry how you have treated yourself (pre-self-forgiveness). Focus on using non-judgment toward yourself and avoid criticizing yourself (you already know that you made a mistake!) when you write this letter.
Let me know what you think! How do you work through shame and arrive at a place of self-forgiveness?
Hall, J.H. & Fincham, F.D. (2005). Self-forgiveness: The stepchild of forgiveness research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(5), 621-637.
Rangganadhan, A.R. & Todorov, N. (2010). Personality and self-forgiveness: The roles of shame, guilt, empathy and conciliatory behavior. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29(1): 1-22.
Twelve steps and twelve traditions. (1989). New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services.