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  • Adam Smith

Self-Forgiveness: A Healthy Response to Self-Directed Anger

Self-Forgiveness is a compassionate response to toxic self-directed anger.

“Our capacity to make peace with another person and with the world depends very much on our capacity to make peace with ourselves” – Thich Nhat Hanh

But how do we make peace with ourselves when we’ve hurt someone, failed in a relationship, a job or career, been self-destructive or haven’t lived in accord with our values? How do we overcome toxic self-directed anger, shame and guilt that might result from the harsh self-criticism regarding our real and perceived transgressions?

Self-directed anger can be included in the group of “moral emotions” (shame, guilt and embarrassment) that guide and influence our behavior. They can be viewed as a wakeup call, a reminder to mindfully commit ourselves to the values and morals we wish to live by. However, when they become toxic, paralyzing in their intensity, these feelings call for self-forgiveness–a key component in the cultivation of healthy anger.

True Self-forgiveness

Self-forgiveness involves gradually letting go of self-critical and harsh judgments: thoughts that foster toxic guilt or shame. Robert Enright, a prominent researcher on self-forgiveness defines it as “a willingness to abandon self–resentment in the face of one’s own acknowledged objective wrong, while fostering compassion, generosity, and love toward oneself” (Enright, 1996, p. 115).

It is natural to feel bad when we’ve done something wrong. Such feelings move us to consider more positive behavior. However, it is destructive when such feelings paralyze us with rumination that yields both shame and self-directed anger, making us unable to move on. As I’ve indicated in a previous post (re: shame), toxic shame can then become the driving force for anger directed toward others and with ourselves.

While unforgiveness promotes anger directed inward, cultivating self-forgiveness is an intentional commitment to overcome such anger. As such, it is a meaningful component in the practice of healthy anger.

True self-forgiveness entails accepting full responsibility for our actions, genuine remorse rather than self-condemnation, and commitment for change (Fisher & Exline, 2006). Rather than forget, we remember our experience and use it as a resource to help guide us to making better choices in the future.

There is no fixed time frame for forgiveness. One instance may require simple and brief reflection, while other experiences require months or even years for moving past it.

Benefits of Self-forgiveness

Numerous studies have shown that forgiveness is correlated with positive emotional health, including less anger, anxiety, and depression and greater satisfaction with life (Rasmussen, Stackhouse, Boon, et. al. 2019). Letting go of toxic self-directed anger, shame and guilt, allows us to trust and become emotionally open with others and ourselves. It is also associated with our physical well-being (Davis, D., Yee Ho, M., Griffin, B., et. al., 2015). Further, numerous studies suggest that cultivating self-forgiveness is associated with improved conflict resolution in our most intimate relationship (Pelluchi, S., Paleari, F., Camillo, R., et. al., 2013).

Self-forgiveness as an expression of self-compassion

Self-forgiveness is a process that depends upon practices of self-compassion. And, like cultivating compassion in general, it is a choice that needs to be repeatedly made even while we have thoughts or feelings that oppose our inclination to do so.

Self-forgiveness involves self-compassion that grows from empathy with our selves. It calls for cognitive empathy that grows from understanding the “backstory” that has helped to shape our thoughts, feelings and behavior. This includes looking at our recent as well as our distant past.

Self-forgiveness also requires emotional empathy, acknowledging that, like all humans, we deserve understanding and compassion. Empathy further helps us to move from resentment to acceptance and acknowledgement of our complexity.

General guidelines for promoting self-forgiveness

Self-forgiveness is a process that takes time. It requires courage and commitment to choose forgiveness even while still suffering. This is reflected in the “phase” model of forgiveness, “…in which an individual moves through an uncovering phase (e.g., denial, guilt, shame), a decision phase (e.g., change of heart), a work phase (e.g. self–awareness, compassion), and finally an outcome phase (e.g., finding meaning, new purpose; (Enright, 1996).”

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