For a story I’m working on, I recently had the opportunity to chat with a 65-year-old woman named Linda who had many years ago been a raging drug and alcoholic addict and spent 10 years in prison for burglary — crimes fueled by her addictions.
She had been out of prison for two years. She was living in a wonderful, safe, nurturing community for homeless women and families, where she was getting help staying sober, finishing her parole, working, saving money, and getting back into the good graces of her daughters and grandchildren.
Things have been going well, she said. “Life is just so wonderful, and I’m so grateful every day.” In fact, she doesn’t regret her time in prison. The experience taught her a lot. She still feels guilt about things she did. “I put my daughters through a lot behind my drug and alcohol use.”
She says she still feels guilt about her drinking and drugging and criminal choices that landed her in prison. But she says she doesn’t feel shame.
“I found God while in prison,” she says. “I learned to appreciate more things. Mainly I learned how to forgive myself with the. That was one hardest things in the world, to learn to forgive myself. I put my kids thorugh a lot, behind me doing drugs.”
“I’m not proud of myself, but I’m not ashamed either.”
Wanting to wrap my head around the seemingly contradictory states in Linda–feeling guilty but not feeling shame, and being able to forgive herself–I turned to the experts at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Since 2001, the center has been at the forefront of a new scientific movement to explore the roots of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. The sponsor ground-breaking research into social and emotional well-being.
One of their core areas of research is forgiveness, which psychologists generally define as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you — regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
Forgiveness is said to bring the forgiver peace of mind and frees him or her from corrosive anger, letting go of deeply held negative feelings. This process is supposed to empower you to recognize the pain you suffered without letting that paid define you, enabling you to heal and move on with your life.
That all sounds reasonable, doing, practical, and healthy.
But what if the person who need to forgive is yourself?
In an article on the Greater Good Science Center website, “The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself,” UC Berkeley doctoral candidate Juliana Breines writes that self-forgivness, for transgressions large and small, is critical for psychological well being. Among her suggestions for healthy self-forgiveness, she addresses the usefulness of guilt but the pointless, toxic effects of shame:
Don’t get rid of guilt, Breines says.
Feeling bad when you do something wrong is natural, and maybe even useful. Without it, where would we find the motivation to do better next time? But not all bad feelings are equally beneficial.
Shame is a much different matter.
Shame, which involves negative feelings about the self as a whole (i.e., feeling worthless), is associated with defensive strategies like denial, avoidance, and even physical violence. Feeling like you’re just a bad person at your core can undermine efforts to change, as change may not even seem possible from this perspective. Guilt, by contrast, involves feeling bad about one’s behavior and its consequences.
To truly forgive yourself and to experience the benefits of it, Breines says, we should always own up to our transgressions, make amends, take responsibility, pay our dues.
Her last suggestion is to foster empathy for the victim.
Research has found that self-forgiveness is negatively associated with empathy for victims. As self-forgiveness increases, empathy decreases. This disconnect is understandable: it’s difficult to have compassion for oneself while also having compassion for those one has hurt.
But self-forgiveness is not supposed to be easy, and without incorporating empathy it seems more like a form of avoidance.
Finally, Breines says, self-forgiveness doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and we may never ultimately release the negative feelings associated with a certain event. Self-forgiveness should not be a form of self-indulgent, rather “elf-forgiveness might be better seen as an act of humility, an honest acknowledgment of our capacity for causing harm as well as our potential for doing good.”