Willingness to forgive is a trait that varies in degree from individual to individual. Some people are so quick to forgive that they become easy to take advantage of. Others nurse grudges for years over minor infractions. Most of us fall somewhere between these two extremes: we are willing to forgive most people for most offenses but have identified certain conditions under which forgiveness is simply not possible.
One thing I've noticed fairly consistently with my patients is that most of them are willing and able to forgive others but have a difficult time forgiving themselves. Many of my patients who struggle with self forgiveness have been burdened by guilt and self blame for years. By the time I see them, what started as guilt has become shame and self loathing. How does this happen?
Think of someone you know (we'll call him Person A) who has a grudge against someone else (we'll call him Person B). Whenever Person A hears Person B's name so much as mentioned he becomes angry. He tells everyone he knows not to talk about Person B around him, but he sometimes brings Person B up himself just so he can say something mean about him. Depending on how bad the grudge gets, Person A might go out of his way to learn things about Person B, especially things that suggest Person B is unhappy or having problems. "It serves him right," Person A says when he learns of any malady in Person B's life. Hating Person B can become quite an obsession if things get out of control...And so imagine this turned inward. Imagine directing all this anger and hatred at oneself.
Hall and Fincham offer another explanation. When one person has been hurt by another, his instinct is often to avoid that person so as not to activate negative thoughts and feelings associated with the offense committed against him. Often, it is possible to avoid the transgressor indefinitely: reconciliation is not necessarry, even if one chooses to forgive the offender. This is not the case with someone who feels guilty about an offense he has committed against someone else. It is not possible to escape negative thoughts and feelings about the offense by avoiding contact with the transgressor when one is the transgressor; it is not possible to avoid contact with oneself. Attempts to avoid contact with oneself eventually lead to self estrangement or self destruction.
So what needs to happen for a person to forgive himself? According to Hall and Fincham, before a person can forgive himself he must acknowledge the wrongness of his actions and accept responsibility for what he has done. Acknowledging wrongdoing and accepting responsibility are likely to generate feelings of guilt or regret. This is all part of the process. These emotions must be experienced fully and allowed to run their course, no matter how difficult, in order for self forgiveness to occur.
This may sound simple, but true self forgiveness is often a long and arduous process. It is typically quite painful for a person to admit that his actions caused very grave consequences. The guilt that ensues is a heavy burden that becomes a constant companion from the moment responsibility is accepted until the moment self forgiveness occurs.
For many people, feelings of guilt precipitate conciliatory behaviors and motivate efforts at restitution. When apologizing to the victim is not possible, some confess their misdeed to God (or another higher power) and ask for His forgiveness. Research suggests that people find it easier to forgive themselves when they believe they have been forgiven by their victim or by God. Thus, receiving forgiveness from others sometimes enables us to forgive ourselves. (Remember this next time you think about holding a grudge).
Something else that can help with self forgiveness is trying to find something positive to take away from an otherwise bad experience. This is akin to finding the silver lining in a dark cloud. Thus, while one acknowledges the negative consequences that resulted from his actions, he is able to take something positive from the experience as well. Common examples of this include learning a valuable lesson, changing your priorities, or realizing how much a particular relationship means to you.