Why It’s Hard To Forgive Yourself? Why Can’t You Do It?

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Forgiveness did not exist in Ancient Greece, Rome, or Egypt. Their kings and queens believed they were gods, and so nothing they ever did was a mistake.

Unless you think you were born a god, you know you will keep making mistakes throughout your life. Errors and faults are human. But, no matter how well you know that for a fact, forgiving is a tough act; you can’t make someone forgive you if you don’t know these.

Forgiving yourself is harder still. You may pardon your friend for a wrong deed, but not forgive yourself for the same thing.

Why is self-forgiveness so hard? Why can’t you seem to forgive yourself?

why is it hard to forgive yourself

Why It’s Hard To Forgive Yourself?

Some people find self-forgiveness hard because they do not permit it and continue wanting to suffer in remorse. They may interpret it as condoning themselves and allowing future hurtful acts. Self-forgiveness is also not the nature of narcissists and idealists, as they refuse to admit they have made mistakes.

In positive psychology, forgiveness is a character strength.

When it comes to forgiveness, you turn to think of someone having done a mean thing that harmed you or hurt your feelings. You allow yourself to let that pass and forgive them.

But you find it no less than a battle to forgive yourself for the wrongs or hurts you caused others, no matter how small the sin.

Your pain becomes more harrowing when you start to agonize over what you could have done differently to prevent it. You think and think, “What were my other options so that I could not hurt them?”

This overthinking then seeps into your logical mind. Your ruminating brain calls into question every decision you ever made in your life, big or small. You may begin to believe that everything was a mistake.

Do you see where the memory of that horrific turn of events is taking you? You might even start to believe all your mistakes were deliberate, and now it’s too late to forgive yourself for a wasted life.

Now, forgiving yourself is not simply saying the words, “I forgive myself.” Doing only that does not offer majorly to the entire process of self-forgiveness.

Forgiving yourself means replacing anger, resentment, and bitterness in yourself with compassion, amiability, and affection. Self-forgiveness helps you become a kind and understanding friend to yourself. Self-forgiveness could be the most precious gift you could offer yourself.

The best thing is, we can learn to do it better and better. Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics, and philosopher says forgiveness is a skill we can hone (Nussbaum, 2016).

[Forgiveness is] a change of heart on the part of the victim, who gives up anger and resentment in response to the offender’s confession and contrition.

— Martha Nussbaum, Anger And Forgiveness

7 Reasons Why Self-Forgiveness Is Difficult

Self-forgiveness is not merely saying “I forgive myself” — it’s much more.

Forgiving yourself for your misdeeds can be a hard process. While you find it easy enough to pardon most people in your known world, you can’t forgive yourself as readily. You may have forgiven yourself for most of your transgressions, but still, there is that one mistake you cannot let yourself off.

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Here are seven reasons you cannot seem to forgive yourself:

1. You find it hard to seek/permit self-forgiveness.

Forgiveness is often almost impossible if you don’t ask for it. Can you forgive someone who does not ask for forgiveness?

So, if you do not ask yourself for an exclusive pardon for a past wrong, how could you imagine yourself forgiving your own self?

Moreover, the question goes much beyond “can you.” Now, must you forgive when you’re not asked for it? Most likely not.

Next, there is the question of permission. Even when you have asked yourself for permission, you did not receive wholehearted consent for a reprieve. So what do you do? You do not forgive yourself, right?

Maybe the person who you were when you made that mistake is no longer the same person who you are in the present. It’s almost as if that former self has left the world, or you’ve lost touch with that self.

You can’t ask the victim of your wrongdoing to forgive you yourself, so you cannot forgive yourself.

It could also be you do not have or cannot gather enough courage to ask yourself for forgiveness.

Therefore, you cannot forgive yourself.

Forgiveness is a funny thing. It cools the heart and cools the sting.

— William Arthur Ward

2. You forget that you have forgiven yourself.

Forgetting a pardon you got from yourself for a grave mistake is alarmingly common. The strange thing is, you remember the mistake all too clearly. And you still suffer from the guilt and shame that came with it. But you forget you gave yourself a pardon for that.

Your memory fails to remind you that you forgave yourself a long time ago. It was easy to forget because the entire conversation took place in your head.

A good idea to prevent it: write it down somewhere – in a paper diary, or a cloud-based notebook, like Evernote or Keep.

• Writing about your past trauma while forgiving yourself is known to help you recover better (learn how to take up writing therapy and heal yourself).

Most of us can forgive and forget. We just don’t want the other person to forget that we forgave.

— Ivern Ball

3. You are unwilling to condone yourself.

To condone means to accept and approve an act that’s morally offensive or wrong. When you condone a behavior, you overlook it or look the other way when it’s on.

You think that by forgiving yourself, you’re letting yourself off the hook and condoning yourself for an unpardonable offense. You fear that it may pave the way for you to commit similar sins in the future. Hence, you can’t bring yourself to forgive yourself.

You think if you forgive yourself for something in your past that was morally wrong, your subconscious mind will accept the apology and pre-approve similar behavior in the future.

There’s a related legal term called condonation. It means one’s approval of another’s activities, making up a defense to fault a divorce. In marriage, condonation is a voluntary pardon by the innocent spouse of an offense committed by their partner based on a promise that it will not recur.

An example of condonation: A certain wife did not object to her husband’s adultery, even though she was aware of it. But later, she tries to use it as grounds for a divorce and a settlement in her favor. The husband was able to counter these efforts by arguing she had already condoned his behavior.

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.

— Mahatma Gandhi

4. You want to keep on suffering.

Penance is a kind of punishment you inflict on yourself as a remorseful payback for your wrongdoing. You punish yourself privately or publicly to show you are sorry for your wrongful act.

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You may, for example, abstain from all solid foods for a week to express your repentance. You could give up eating your favorite food for the rest of your life as a form of penance. To make yourself suffer, you may take cold showers in the dead of winter.

Penance can also become a continuous series of good acts that you keep doing for others to pay for your past failures.

You may go out every evening to pick up all the plastic rubble from all your neighborhood because years back, a cow died because of eating food-filled plastic bags.

Although the word “penance” refers to remorse for past mistakes or any voluntary action to amend a wrong, the term Penance (with a capital P) refers specifically to a sacrament in the Catholic Church.

• When a person receives Penance, they confess their sins to a priest and receive an order to do something good, along with a blessing. It is usually some kind of community service, and the assignment itself is a form of penance.

In the end, you’re firm in your belief that you should never forgive yourself and keep on suffering the same way, or even more, you made the other person suffer. You feel the only way of atonement is to keep suffering.

So, there’s no self-forgiveness. Instead, there will be self-inflicted suffering.

As long as you don’t forgive, who and whatever it is will occupy a rent-free space in your mind.

— Isabelle Holland

5. You prefer to live in denial.

Denial is a form of defense mechanism that involves rejecting the reality of a situation to avoid anxiety.

When in denial, you try to protect yourself by refusing to accept the reality about something that has happened or is happening in your life. In some instances, an early short-term denial might seem useful, as it gives you some time to adjust to an unpleasant or stressful situation.

But in the long-term, it harms you because you do not want to accept the truth and are always in an escape mode from handling the troubling issues. As a result, the issue grows too big to deal with at your level.

If you do not own up or let it ever sink in that you made a mistake, then what is there to be forgiven for? So, where’s the question of forgiving if no sins were committed?

You deny it to yourself, and you deny it to all others who come to confront you on it.

In some probability, you’d even pass a lie detector test while denying it — because your mind doesn’t believe it happened because of your fault.

He who cannot forgive breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass.

— George Herbert

6. You are a narcissist.

Narcissists find it hard to forgive people even for minor faults. In fact, the greater the narcissism, especially the grandiose form, the greater the inability to feel guilt (and therefore, to forgive).

The reasons are one, they lack empathy for others, and two, they have a bloated sense of self-importance.

In fact, marriage and family therapist Linda Graham writes:

In my clinical training, I learned the short-cut diagnosis for a narcissistic personality was someone who could never say “thank you” or say “I’m sorry.” You may encounter people like that on a daily basis; you may work for them or live with them.

A grandiose narcissist truly believes they are too good to make any mistake of their own accord, and it’s always the other people, or the rest of the world, who are at fault. It is they who always make the narcissist do that.

They are the ones to blame for the wrong. So, why should they forgive themselves for another person’s sin?

Worse still, they consider themselves above all mistakes, as they are too perfect for doing something wrong. Everything they do seems justified and above any blame.

Now, you might be a covert narcissist and take extreme caution to hide it from the world. But, in your heart of hearts, you know who you are. So, while the wound of that past sin keeps on festering, you can’t bring yourself to forgive yourself even in your personal space.

In the end, sadly, you reject your own proposal to forgive yourself.

To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.

—Louis B Smedes

7. You practice living like an idealist.

You don’t think it’s righteous for you, the judge, to forgive you, the sinner. That whole thing of self-forgiveness is akin to moral depravity in your idealist view.

To such a person, self-forgiveness creates a sense of cognitive dissonance, which is an uncomfortable feeling when your actions do not match up to your beliefs.

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.

— Paul Boose

Is it okay to not forgive yourself: Benefits of self-forgiveness

Refusing to forgive oneself is not a good idea. A helpful piece of advice in this regard is to learn from the mistake, forgive oneself, correct one’s ways, and move on with your life. Not forgiving oneself can build toxic regrets, which prevent growing and evolving into a better person.

A 2020 study found forgiving others and self-forgiveness can reduce emotions such as anger, guilt, regret, and overthinking. They provide a buffer between one’s own and others’ offenses that occur during the day. They also provide a restful mental state that promotes sound sleep.

Researchers found forgiveness was also linked to a longer lifespan.

Historically, it may come as a surprise that the modern concept of forgiveness appeared late—in the seventeenth century. Startlingly, forgiveness was also not fully present in the early Jewish and Christian commentaries on the Holy Scriptures (Konstan, 2010).

Scientifically, the surprising fact is that forgiveness can help us get better of our physical issues, besides healing our emotional wounds. Studies show it can lower the risk of a heart attack, improve cholesterol levels and sleep quality, and reduce pain, blood pressure, anxiety, stress, and depression.

Final Words

To err is human, we know too well. By carrying along with you those mistakes as shame, you deprive yourself of a brighter and happier future.

I think the first step is to understand that forgiveness does not exonerate the perpetrator. Forgiveness liberates the victim. It’s a gift you give yourself. — T. D. Jakes

Forgiveness is a healing process that allows us to let go of anger, guilt, shame, sadness, and bitterness, and move on. When we pinpoint the underlying emotion, we allow it to have a voice.

Accepting that it’s only human to make mistakes, we can begin the process of forgiveness. Thereafter, when we have forgiven ourselves fully, we can truly move on in life.

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Why not set out on a journey of self-forgiveness? Learn How To Forgive Yourself In 7 Steps.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher. Founder and Chief Editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes on mental health, happiness, positive psychology, and philosophy (especially Stoicism).

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