A perspective on guilt and self-forgiveness

Features Features

An inability to forgive oneself is something many of us struggle with. We routinely identify mistakes or bad choices that we have made in the past and can become overwhelmed with regret, anger, and disappointment. Though the origins of these feelings can be complex, diverse, and multi-faceted, I believe the ways in which we understand guilt and self-forgiveness prevent us from moving on. In order to improve our own mental well-being and that of everyone around us, we should alter these understandings.

It is important to state that what follows is my own perspective; the conclusions I reach are based on my own personal experiences and, as such, will not necessarily speak truth for everyone. However, when it comes to maintaining good mental health, learning about the coping mechanisms used by different people can be extremely useful. I therefore hope that by sharing my thoughts on guilt and self-forgiveness, others who are struggling in a similar way might be helped.

It is not uncommon to find ourselves agonising over past mistakes and bad decisions. We feel guilty because, as a result of our actions, others have been hurt. Despite our best efforts to apologise and make amends, we remain unable to forgive ourselves. The fact that our offences may have been minor rarely offers much comfort either. Simply put, it seems that no matter what we do, and no matter how much time has passed, nothing can rid us of our guilt.

Many of us believe that self-forgiveness is found through undoing the hurt caused by our actions, but we cannot time travel and take back the things we have said or done. Though we should always try and help those we have wronged, recognising that our efforts cannot change the past is vital. Nobody is perfect; we all make mistakes and bad choices. When we fail to acknowledge that our errors are inevitable and cannot be retracted our guilt becomes permanent and accumulates until it reaches intolerable levels.

When we fail to acknowledge that our errors are inevitable and cannot be retracted our guilt becomes permanent and accumulates until it reaches intolerable levels.

Our guilt is frequently mobilised in unhelpful ways. Many of us assume guilt is a deserved punishment for our wrongdoings; this can be problematic. For the most part we are penalised by the consequences of our actions, thus using guilt as self-inflicted punishment merits double jeopardy. Employing guilt in this manner serves only to normalise low mood and a negative self-image, and thought processes that are detrimental to our mental health become internally legitimised.

Pain is an evolutionary mechanism developed for our protection; when we grab a hot plate it hurts so we drop it. Guilt, as a form of mental pain, works in much the same way. Mistakes and bad decisions often have negative consequences for those who perform them and therefore should not be repeated. Rather than causing long-term suffering, guilt should motivate us to change our harmful behaviours. If we no longer feel pain once the plate has been dropped, then we should also release our guilt when there is no longer a risk of our wrongdoings being repeated.

Aside from knowing that we will do better next time, self-forgiveness is also dependent on our best efforts in the present to apologise and make amends. However, it is vital to remember that we are never fully responsible for another person’s emotional state. Since self-forgiveness should not be contingent on things that are beyond our control, the forgiveness we receive from someone else is irrelevant. Instead the process of wholeheartedly attempting to do the right thing is far more important than its eventual outcomes.

Self-forgiveness should not be contingent on things that are beyond our control.

None of this is to advocate the rejection of responsibility, but rather to create a framework in which constructive action beneficial for both parties is carried out. When self-forgiveness is beyond our control – either because it is dependent on erasing our wrongdoings or altering our peer’s feelings – and guilt an instrument of punishment, we fail to move on. We feel angry, disappointed, and low. This prevents us taking anything positive from our shortcomings, and inhibits our ability to make up for them. It helps nobody.

Whilst any individual mistake or bad decision may be avoidable, living a life entirely devoid of error is neither possible nor advisable. Our wrongdoings, though not always pleasant, are essential because they enable us to develop as people. Once we recognise this, and as long as we try limit any damage caused, it becomes possible to look back at our failures without being haunted by them. It is only possible to be at peace with our mistakes and bad decisions if we alter our understandings of guilt and self-forgiveness.