The yearning for personal redemption could be considered the bedrock of many modern religions. Humans inherently make mistakes, which causes us to feel shame, guilt, anxiety and unhappiness. To be redeemed of our mistakes equals freedom from that guilt and fear—a fresh start and the possibility of joy. In religious communities, this fresh start might require some act of self-sacrifice, punishment or renewed devotion.
In the secular world of modern psychology, personal redemption is equally important when it comes to emotional well-being, and it is studied and strived for through the parallel path of self-forgiveness. Swap “mind” for “soul,” and the narrative plays out largely the same. You do something—break a promise to a friend, maybe—that you feel badly about. The incident eats at you. Your self-condemnation might even make you question your worth as a “good” person. Your stress spikes, your self-esteem suffers and it’s hard to enjoy daily life.
The religious model for redemption seeks divine forgiveness. But restored emotional and physical health, according to positive psychologists, hinges on forgiving oneself.
Marilyn Cornish, Ph.D., an assistant professor of counseling at Auburn University College of Education in Auburn, Alabama, developed a four-part therapeutic model for self-forgiveness: responsibility, remorse, restoration and renewal. Ask yourself the following questions to achieve your own personal redemption.
Why did I do it?
Self-forgiveness can become self-delusion if you don’t accept the blame for what you’ve done. Don’t make excuses, rationalize your behavior or blame other people. Look inside yourself to understand the root of your behavior.
Are you a people pleaser who takes on too much and then disappoints the same people you wanted to please? Does your own insecurity cause you to diminish the success of others? Once you accept responsibility, you can begin to make amends and prevent yourself from repeating the same offenses.
Am I thinking of myself more than the person I hurt?
Try to direct your feelings of shame and guilt toward empathy rather than self-criticism. Everyone makes mistakes, and beating yourself up doesn’t help anyone. Think instead of the feelings of the other person: Is she as offended as you imagined? Why might she be particularly hurt? Has she made it clear she is upset with you?
It might be the case that your embarrassment and remorse are outsized for the situation. If not, you can begin to make amends.
How can I right my wrong?
Here’s the hard part. Now that you understand your motivation and have considered the feelings of your friend/relative/colleague, you need to do what you can to repair the damage. Apologize without excuses. Commit to doing better.
What if the other person doesn’t forgive me?
They might not. It’s no one else’s job to absolve you, and your self-forgiveness can’t rely on an outside pardon. If you have done the work of understanding your wrong and have done all you can to rectify it, it’s time to move on.
You might always feel guilty, but lingering self-punishment and rumination will only take energy away from bettering yourself. Cornish recommends writing yourself a letter of forgiveness that outlines what you’ve learned and the positive changes you’ve made as a result. In one study, sober alcoholics who wrote narratives of their self-redemption (describing their last drink, what made them stop and the improvements in their life since) reduced their risk of relapse and maintained sobriety for longer than those who didn’t.
In that way, forgiving yourself is an act of compassion toward yourself—and others.