When you forgive someone, you make the decision to let go of the bitterness, resentment and anger you feel towards that person. Research exists in abundance regarding the benefits of forgiveness within relationships.

Forgiveness overtly benefits a relationship by providing room for trust and closeness to begin to re-grow as bitterness, resentment and anger are given permission to step aside. Forgiveness covertly benefits the one choosing to forgive by significantly decreasing blood pressure, increasing life expectancy and releasing serotonin and dopamine (the brain’s feel good chemicals) that defend the body against depression and anxiety. Failing to forgive and choosing to hold onto resentment facilitates isolation in a relationship and, on a personal level, is like drinking poison while waiting for your enemy to fall. Obviously, forgiveness of others is a holistically healthy decision.

Choosing to forgive others when they have wronged you is extremely difficult. What I find, however, is that forgiving ourselves seems to be even more difficult. The inability to forgive ourselves leads us down the same path as the inability to forgive others but, instead, this ruins the relationship we have with ourselves. We resent, become bitter, are angry and, in turn, fail to see the good, the value and the worth we personally maintain. The ancient statement of Jesus, “Love your neighbor, as yourself,” can be considered here. Often it’s easier to love our neighbors than to love ourselves. Perhaps this is why the sentence does not end with “love your neighbor” rather continues with “as yourself.” Loving our neighbors is fairly easy, loving ourselves is not. Forgiving others is often easy, forgiving ourselves is not. We are our own worst critics, but why is this the case?

The inability to forgive yourself often comes down to an issue of guilt versus shame. Guilt is what you feel when you have violated a rule that is important to you or when you believe you have failed to live up to a certain standard set for yourself. Guilt is the painful emotion you feel when something you have done is wrong or has failed. Shame goes much deeper than guilt. Shame says you did something wrong because you are wrong, or you failed because you are a failure. When you feel shame you are assuming that what you have done wrong means that you are inadequate, flawed, no good, useless and so forth. Shame tells you that your mistakes define you, whereas guilt says “sure, you messed up, but you are not a mess up.”

Guilt is about what you do. Shame is about who you are. Shame touches you at the core of your identity. Guilt is motivating, as it informs you of where you went wrong while recognizing that whatever has taken place can be reconciled and learned from, and movement can still follow. Shame is paralyzing, informing you that you are wrong at your core and that you are a hopeless case, nothing can be remedied completely, no lesson will fix this and change is ultimately impossible.

The primary way to rid yourself of shame is by choosing to think differently and step into the act of self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness allows you to literally change the meaning of a personal shortcoming. For example, instead of saying, “I’ve made mistakes in the past because I’m basically a failure,” you change it to say, “I’ve made mistakes in the past because I’m human.”

Mistakes are made by you; you are not made by your mistakes.

Overcoming shame through self-forgiveness means recognizing the impact of your personal mistake, identifying the natural consequences, taking an appropriate amount of personal responsibility for what happened, learning from the experience what to do next time and taking back control. In doing so, you move from being controlled by your shame to being empowered because you have learned something new about yourself and your ability to overcome, and that your identity is not defined by the worst of you. Self-forgiveness promotes a healthy relationship with yourself, so that you can healthily live in relationship with others and the world around you.

By Megan Clunan