• Hazelden Renewal Center

The Gift of Self-Forgiveness

“If I had to live my life again, I’d make all the same mistakes—only sooner.” — Tallulah Bankhead (1902-1968)

One of the most hidden and powerful aspects of human identity is how many of us have shame and harsh judgments towards ourselves. Some of us are barely aware of our self-contempt; others are drowning in a sea of self-revulsion and have no way to save ourselves. Most of us alternate between denial and harsh self-criticism. We are so overwhelmed by this self-devaluation that we often unconsciously choose to not acknowledge it in ourselves. Often, we don’t know why we hate ourselves. Perhaps we would rather not know.

Thus, we go about the business of living with little self-awareness or self-observation. We skim across the surface of life. We focus instead on externals: Our career attainment, our social status, our financial success, whether our kids are getting into the best colleges and what kind of electronic devices we own. Although many of these goals may be valuable to pursue, we often overlook other, more meaningful, aspects of life: Are we leading a life that matters? Do others see us as a good person? Do we see ourselves as a good person? Do we really matter to anybody? What is our legacy in life? How do we face our own ultimate mortality? Thus, hiding from our own self-contempt causes many of us to be clueless in answering the ultimate question of life: Why have we been placed on this earth and what purpose have we served?

Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to face these questions if we could be more aware of ourselves and forgive that which is not forgiven in ourselves? In fact, there is an old saying that goes: As I forgive myself, I change. Indeed, it is in this forgiveness that we become able to answer the ultimate questions of life and to know that our life matters. Self-forgiveness is the root of all personal growth. Actually, attaining success without self-forgiveness is a living nightmare as the following example illustrates:

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A very kind and intimate friend of mine, Marcus, came to me in significant distress. He was preoccupied with his oldest son Michael who had recently successfully finished an opioid treatment program. Instead of being delighted he was distraught.

He said that to replace the opioids his son had taken up vaping and was $13,000 in debt over his nicotine addiction. He wanted his son to recover since he felt guilty that during Michael’s childhood he had devoted himself almost exclusively to his business demands and neglected to spend time with his son. He felt there was a link between his neglect of his son years ago and his current problems with addiction. He said he had to save his son due to his own guilt.

This was the second time his son had come to him for money even though Michael had a good job and made a good income. Clearly Michael had completed his opioid program without coming to grips with the self-hatred of his own using. He had simply replaced one drug for another. He had neglected to heal himself inside and was likely using his dad’s guilt to manipulate him. Finally, my friend asked Michael to be honest about what was driving him to abuse chemicals.

His son described how he could never measure up to his dad who was very athletic, successful in business, a great performing guitarist, and good with people. Michael knew his dad’s stories of sports achievement, career and financial success and dynamic community leadership. In fact, Marcus often was image-conscious, driving a blue Ferrari, wearing Italian designer suits and looking like he could be on the cover of GQ magazine. Marcus was a hard-driving man who always expected the best of himself. It became pretty clear to him why his son had spent his whole life not feeling acceptable. He was following his dad’s example.

As I sat across from Marcus I looked him in the eyes and said, “Your son’s addictions are due to his incomplete lack of recovery for which only he can be responsible. Your image is pretty amazing. But that’s not the best part of you. I enjoy you as a friend because of who you are, not what you do. Your heart is bigger than life.” I reminded him that I too had let my son down in his early years and that I struggle with guilt over it. I find the best way to deal with this guilt is to hang out with him in a positive way and let him know that he is loved for who he is already. Marcus reciprocated. He told me that what draws him to me is that I am a nerd and don’t worry about image. I reminded him that his son is a nerd as well. I said that maybe you should get over saving him and just hang out with him as you have been doing. We were both close to tears with each other.

Marcus took this magical moment and ran with it. He realized he needed to forgive himself in a big way. He told Michael that instead of giving him the $13,000 he would do something more than that. He acknowledged that he had played a role in his son’s childhood pain and had overemphasized achievement over simply accepting his son as he is. He would stay out of his son’s recovery and do something his son had asked him to do for years—to teach him how to play the “Star-spangled Banner” the way Jimi Hendrix played it. Sure enough, Marcus and Michael play guitar together today and just hang out, the same as I do with my own son. And his son now does a mean version of the “Star-spangled Banner.”

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Please don’t get the idea that self-forgiveness is as easy as this story illustrates. It isn’t. Marcus and I took many years to work up to that exchange. In my opinion, what’s important in this story is that it often takes a caring relationship with a significant other to help us lessen our shame and guilt, something that is virtually impossible to do all on our own. We all need other warm human beings to go inside our souls to lighten up on ourselves. Such transformations don’t happen overnight. Marcus and I have been friends for years and we each have more work to do on ourselves. But life is much brighter for both of us.

Signals that we need forgiveness

Seeing is an important part of healing ourselves. What we cannot see we cannot heal. The following signals may indicate that you may need help with your own shame and guilt:

  • Withdrawal from your life goals and giving up on hope in yourself.
  • Persistent perfectionism and excessive striving for status and success.
  • Unwillingness to talk about certain important parts of your history.
  • Criticism and extreme prejudice towards others.
  • Occasional loss of control over minor offenses in others.
  • Glassy-eyed optimism over how well you are doing.
  • Cluelessness towards how you affect others.
  • Excessive acts of atonement over seemingly minor errors.
  • Compulsive and addictive behaviors.
  • Repeated efforts to control others.
  • Failure to see the bigger picture of how others have scapegoated you or you have involuntarily sacrificed your well-being for others.

What stops us from forgiving ourselves

Some of us feel hating ourselves is our lot in life, as if we have no other alternative or were born that way. We may be quite unaware of how other people have emotionally neglected us, blamed us or had a stake in making us feel bad. We wouldn’t know where to begin in truly forgiving ourselves. Others feel that we deserve to be punished because our current life is unsuccessful, we are too interested in self-indulgence, or life has not lived up to expectations. Often such beliefs are caused inadvertently and mistaken self-blame for causing some perverted behaviors in others. Some of us enjoy wallowing in our own misery or inducing guilt in others for our own suffering. Finally, many of us are too isolated and are cut off from spiritual or palliative resources. Some of us truly lack resources or have an exaggerated notion of how we alone should be able to solve our own problems. Perhaps we refuse genuine gestures of support by others due to our own false pride or fear of being exploited. Some of us would rather suffer as a means of belonging to a group of suffering souls. Some of us stay in shame to fuel our impulses to stay addicted and get high as a poor substitute for real self-esteem and serenity, which we find elusive. Finally, there are some of us who enjoy inflicting our misery on others because it is the only power we have in life. These are the so-called “bad asses” of life. Some of us flee from self-righteousness and would rather be sinners than saints. Others prefer self-righteousness over true self-forgiveness as it gives us power over others who are less perfect than us. The variety of roadblocks to overcoming shame and guilt are a testimony to our passion to survive. Far better to roast in hell with other devils than to be cast out into nothingness.

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Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. — Confucius, 551-479 BC

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Steps towards self-forgiveness

Let me walk you through some tried-and-true strategies for being less guilty and ashamed of yourself. All of these ideas require real effort on your part and will not happen magically or quickly on their own. However, you should begin to experience some small moments of peace and relief as you work on these ideas. It’s best, and perhaps necessary, to do these strategies with a trusted helper or support group like a good Al-anon or spiritual study group. What got hurt in you occurred in a relationship and you need a healing relationship to correct these wrongs. Give yourself credit for even trying. Consider these efforts to be life-long. Most likely the wounds that you incurred happened in the most formative years of your life and live in your body with persistent unidentified memories. Fortunately, our brains have neuroplasticity and these memories can be modified and our suffering eased. Think of self-forgiveness as a healing biological process that occurs much like a head injury or back injury gets mended. You go one step at a time over a long journey. You may get impatient as your personal miracle does not happen fast enough. Look real close at yourself and you will see the miracle as it gradually unfolds before your very eyes. I can tell you from personal experiences that miracles really do happen. There is hope for self-forgiveness! Here are some steps:

  1. Read everything you can on healing shame and forgiveness. I like all the writings of Brené Brown, especially Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden Publishing, 2010) and Forgive and Forget. Some true stories may also help. Read A Mother’s Reckoning (Broadway Books, 2017) by Sue Klebold and Amish Grace (Jossey-Bass, 2007) by Donald B. Kraybell and Steve M. Nolt. These are amazing stories of forgiveness and the value of forgiveness. It is not easy to put things behind us, forgive others or feel self-accepting when we have been abused. But it’s possible to have them take up less space in our awareness, to be less wounded by our traumas and to move on with our lives in a way that makes us stronger. All of this takes lots of time but is well worth it.
  2. Make amends to anybody you have significantly hurt, when it is safe to do so for you and the other person. Remember that part of the Lord’s Prayer that says “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We cannot authentically feel good about ourselves when we have harmed others and have not acknowledged such wrongs. Share your mistake first with some trusted person so that you are accurately righting the wrongs that you’ve done. Some of us feel more responsible than we ought to or we minimize how much we have hurt others. Realize that you don’t need the other person’s forgiveness to forgive yourself and you will never be able to remove the damage you have already caused. Just knowing that you have come clean with another will lessen your load.
  3. Realize that the lion’s share of your self-condemnation is not due to wrongs you have done but to the wrongs that have been done to you throughout your lifetime that you’re often not aware of. Those battles we fight today are the forgotten struggles in our childhood against impossible odds for which there are no words. Yet we fault ourselves today for losing them without knowing why, and we absorb other people’s failures as if they were our own. It’s the price we pay for wanting to be loved. Much of the shame we carry today is due to other people’s failures who were also imperfect.
  4. Get savvy to the great extent that this materialistic culture contributes to your shame and guilt. You have not learned to hate yourself all by yourself. You’ve had a lot of help to do that. The majority of television advertising is about how there is something wrong with you and how only their product can correct this. Although some information on TV is informative, most of it only reconfirms how you are not enough—thin enough, attractive enough, or are not doing enough for your children. You also have way more substance to you than the superficial entertainment pabulum that passes for news or family programming. While there is nothing wrong with occasional splurges of silly entertainment, certainly a steady diet of it will leave you feeling mindless and empty. Consider joining a great book discussion group or going to the library and rediscovering reading as a way to challenge yourself and expand your horizons. You have everything you already need to be a wise and attractive full person.
  5. Heal yourself with vibrant love from others in your present life. Love always trumps hatred if you are willing to receive it. Get involved in a good Al-anon group that helps you witness your strengths and opens you up to receiving from others. The spiritual blessings of 12 Step Groups cannot be overstated. Self-forgiveness comes from knowing what you mean to others and feeling what they mean to you. You will become more self-reliant as you open yourself to love.
  6. Develop a strong observing self and let that person guide and challenge you. He or she is your best friend. Look at that person in the mirror, talk to him or her out loud and let that person be your conscience, your inspiration and your affirmer. If your inner critic arises thank him or her for being so loyal to you all these years but ask him or her to step aside as you already have a new guide and a new way of doing things. Don’t cast your inner critic aside much like you wouldn’t disown an old relative. Just let him or her fade away as you move on with your observing self. Let that part of you appear in your dreams and speak to you out of love. Don’t be afraid of that person. He or she is there to protect you. You will be amazed at what you see and hear. Often that person is the reincarnation of anyone who has authentically loved you, like a deceased parent, beloved aunt or uncle, dear sibling or your Higher Power. All the people who have ever truly loved you live inside you all the time. I hope you take a part of me with you too.

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“And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” — Aeschylus (Greek playwright, 525-456 BC)


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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