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Newsletter for November 2003

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Maya Angelou

Forgiving yourself

One of the most important underlying questions which people have about forgiving is "How can I forgive myself?" - indeed many ask, "Is it actually even possible to forgive oneself?"  Answering this shows us an important dimension to self-knowledge.


  • The motivation to be a forgiving person - partly we need to experience forgiveness from others and/or God, but partly it's about self-knowledge
  • Overcoming shame - shame calls out for forgiveness as much as guilt does; Maya Angelou and Dianne Reeves illustrate setting oneself free from shame
  • Self-knowledge - improving the relationship you have with yourself; The Cloud of Unknowing
  • Three steps in self-management - Fred Luskin's take on empowering others to forgive themselves
  • Conclusion - forgiving yourself is a sign of maturity and wisdom; it also leads us to forgive others when they claim they haven't done anything wrong and don't need to forgive themselves


1  The motivation to be a forgiving person

Many of the inspiring people who write in to ForgivenessNet have expressed concerns about the area of forgiving yourself.  Usually the issues they convey are for some wrong they have done or some failure to accomplish 'normal' life goals.  Sometimes they are struggling with a partner who ought to feel bad about herself/himself but doesn’t, seeming to forgive herself/himself all the time in the most annoying way!

When we come from a background of religion, as I do, forgiving yourself can be affirmed as a recognisable feature of the personal healing process, yet it does not seem to be a significant aspect of the larger levels of forgiving wherein we can improve relationships or proactively aid people lost in their mistakes and history.  What it took me a while to understand is if you want to be a forgiving person all the time - and this is one of the highest callings a human being can have - then you have to clarify what motivates you.  As R T Kendall says (to a largely Christian audience):

Forgiving ourselves is as much a life-long commitment as forgiving an enemy or an unfair person.  (Total Forgiveness p 134)

The motivation to be a forgiving person comes from two places: partly from the experience of being forgiven (by God or by a true love) but also partly from the self-knowledge to know in what ways I'm going to fail to pass this forgiveness on to others.  These others may not have wronged me personally, but they still need to be released and empowered.  Forgiving myself is a lifelong aspect of renewing my calling to help others experience forgiveness.

2  Overcoming shame

I want to begin to explore this by remembering that we often confuse guilt and shame: the wrong in what we do and the wrong in what we are.  (See Harold Kushner on Distinguishing between guilt and shame.)  Confusing them isn't just a mistake - it reveals something important about human nature!  We might think forgiveness applies only to the guilty, but what people are and what they do are not to be that simplistically separated.  In a recent ForgivenessNet e-letter, The limitations of saying "Love the sin, hate the sinner", June 2003, I summarised:

We want forgiveness to be a single action we can perform.  But what forgiving and being forgiven feel like is not simple or brief.  It's less like an action, and more like a whole person's life story, and the best examples of forgiving allow both or all sides to "tell their story." ... Forgiveness isn't really about distinguishing people from their actions.  It's about having and holding bi-focal vision - seeing people as both good and wrong at the same time. 

Shame - the sense of being inferior or a failure, visually stripped, examined and found wanting - needs forgiveness as much as guilt does.  Shame often attaches to what we don't do ("sins of omission") while guilt attaches to what we did but did wrong ("sins of commission"). Applying forgiveness to what people have done will also often involve applying forgiveness to what they are, at least in as far as they see themselves.

This is where forgiving yourself is at its most startling.   One of the experiences that helped me see the profound aspects of forgiving yourself was listening to a great African-American woman - Maya Angelou - and then hearing her heartsong in another great African-American woman - Dianne Reeves.

Maya Angelou recently made her first public visit to Glasgow, and I was lucky enough to be able to attend - one of only a handful of men among a couple of thousand women whose lives have been lit up by this most courageous and inspiring woman, poet, writer, singer, and teacher.  Listening to her stand tall on arthritic knees and recite Still I Rise, I realised I was hearing the authentic sound of a human being who knows self-forgiveness:

You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you? / Why are you best with gloom? / 'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells / Pumping in my living room.

... Out of the huts of history's shame / I rise / Up from a past that's rooted in pain / I rise / ... bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave / I am the dream and the hope of the slave / I rise

(from the collection And Still I Rise)

There is a profound determination to set oneself free from shame - self-forgiveness even though Angelou has only a passing interest in the more 'poetic' version of forgiveness through being in love (the poem Forgive from I Shall Not Be Moved).  It also recreated for me one of the songs of Dianne Reeves, who is now counted among the greatest of all jazz singers.  Her "Endangered Species" is a stunning black feminist (sistah) anthem, and begins with the lines:

I am an endangered species / but I sing no victim's song / I am a woman, I am an artist / I know where my voice belongs (from Art & Survival)

These women tell of overcoming the damage inflicted by others and by cultural history - that being a black woman is double inferior, doubly shameful.  Neither locates the ability to do this in an external source - God or a true love.  It is a choice: a stage of empowerment that to some may seem arrogant.   For example, the (white male) pastor John Wimber told how he used to get really annoyed with the apparent arrogance of a colleague who often messed things up, yet always forgave himself and started on again.  "Shouldn't he at least feel crummy?" Wimber thought ... until Wimber himself made a terrible mess of things.   (See Forgiving myself.)

3  Self-knowledge

Forgiving yourself is part of coming to know yourself.  Unless you are able to start on this path, forgiving yourself will seem either impossible or irrelevant.

I still have a number of friends and colleagues who rush around seeking religious high after religious high, looking for God, looking for true love.  "Surely I need to find the life-changing experience of being forgiven first, from someone or somewhere else?"  In this state of soul, forgiving yourself will seem like trying to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps, or like an Archimedes looking for a lever with which to move himself, rather than to move the earth – impossible.

Now when we're in this worried state, too busy to stop and know yourself, we nonetheless have hold of an important truth: forgiving is always about improving relationship.  The point is that self-knowing establishes a relationship within myself: the self who knows and the self who is known. 

For example, the medieval treatise The Cloud of Unknowing assists "the novice" on the path towards the divine by helping him not to be pulled apart by worries about his wrong desires, thoughts and memories, but to calmly bring them together into one Lump.  It's a little like all these loan companies who offer to assemble "all your debts together into one easy-to-manage monthly payment" - except that they're exploiting you.  Do it yourself, without extra cost, and you're learning to manage yourself.

4  Three steps in self-management

Do some people have the character genes to be self-forgiving, while others lack them and can't be helped?    We're wrong to frame the question as an either/or - both occur.  Fred Luskin has done more than anyone to train others in forgiving, and in his chapter on forgiving yourself in Forgive for Good, he helpfully maps out four main areas where people will need to be helped to forgive themselves. 

Two are 'omissions': feeling you have failed a main 'life task' like achieving financial independence; and not confronting a person or a difficult challenge like an office bully or manipulative gossip. Two are 'commissions: doing something which hurts another person, like an affair or sabotaging someone's career;and developing self-destructive habits and dependencies.  The first two correspond more to shame; the second two to guilt.

For Fred there are three steps we can take in these situations to forgive ourselves:

  1. Locating ourselves in a wider human picture where "Nobody is perfect.  Everybody makes mistakes.  Being human means you and I will fail at some things and cause other people harm.  Needing to be perfect is an unenforceable rule ..." (p 198)
  2. Taking responsibility for how we feel rather than blaming.  Blaming leaves the 'other' or yourself unchanged, whereas taking responsibility for your part, and your feelings now, means taking steps (enforceable or practicable rules) to affect and assist the other/yourself.
  3. Telling our own story by focussing on the positive parts, not dwelling on the mistakes.  This isn't about 'spin' in what words we use: it means putting your energy into the good parts of your life, developing a positive intention to help and to love.

5  Conclusion

In Fred's research into forgiveness training, he explored self-forgiveness with an advanced class, even though he also holds that "when looked at properly (self-forgiveness) is easier than forgiving someone else" because we don't have to encounter another person's refusal to welcome us.

The ambiguity here comes from the fact that forgiving yourself is a vital part of self-knowing, and we do have to have a degree of inner strength and wisdom to embark on this.  It could be called 'easier' only once we're already journeying, and have this overview.

Over the years I have met many people who keep their heads low, below the parapet, comfortable to achieve little and risk little.  They believe sincerely that because they have never done any large wrong or made a large mistake, in terms of society’s standards of the successful, normal, materially profitable life, they are without fault.  "I have no enemies," "I haven’t done anything wrong" or "So I don’t need forgiveness and I don’t need to forgive myself."   The illusion we create for ourselves in Western, consumer-culture society is that we are not responsible for one another, not responsible for neighbours in our own community, let alone responsible for people in another country, or people who are offended by our cultural arrogance.

It is a great step forward in wisdom and human spirit to ask about forgiving yourself.  It means moving beyond this comfortable view of yourself, and owning the fact that "risking little" means "doing little", for which we all need much forgiveness.   After all, walking by on the other side is - according to those most inspiring standards, such as Jesus' teaching, which Western consumerism still nods its head towards - doing a bad thing!

Andrew Knock

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