How To Forgive Yourself: Understanding What Forgiveness Is

Self, Heartbreak

Forgiveness: What is it, broken boundaries, guilt, shame, how to deal with it and possible gratitude

She was stuck in a rut! After all those years, she could still not forgive herself. It was impossible!

It all started on a warm summer evening when he took her to the top of the hotel roof and made her sit on the trapdoor. “Do this,” he said. “Do that,” he said.

“This is going to hurt,” and hurt it did! He knew what he was doing! After the thrusting, he left her alone and told her not to tell anyone.

And so…she had his secret to keep and the pain that went with it. How was she going to be able to forgive herself?

Understanding boundaries in forgiving yourself

Understanding boundaries is essential to forgiving yourself. We all have boundaries—physical boundaries, emotional boundaries, intellectual boundaries, social boundaries, spiritual boundaries, and sexual boundaries.

When a boundary is broken, spoken or unspoken, there comes trauma—small trauma, big trauma, and/or chronic trauma. How you react to trauma depends on you, as each person reacts differently.

When there is emotional turmoil from broken boundaries in your life, it is almost impossible to forgive yourself. Dealing with the emotions comes first. That may take a long time. It may include deep breathing from the diaphragm, using physical exercise to decrease the intensity, journaling, talking to a trusted friend or counselor, or doing something else to help decrease/release the emotions.

Without broken boundaries, there is no need for forgiveness.

False guilt, guilt, and shame in forgiving yourself

False guilt is where the other person is trying to make you feel guilty or bad about something that is not your responsibility—something that you did not do. The woman in the story above was not responsible for the man raping her; she was the victim and the victim is never guilty. Yet, she felt it was her fault.

Guilt says, “I did something wrong.” It is about my behaviour and not who I am. Guilt is easy to deal with in most cases—it means taking responsibility for your actions, changing your behaviour, and saying “I am sorry,” if you need to.

Shame, on the other hand, says, “I am bad.” It goes to my core of who I am. It can be interpreted as “I am worthless,” “I am helpless,” “I am unlovable,” or some version of this. Shame is about who I am and this is very hard to find forgiveness for. It takes a long time to start believing in yourself and to begin the forgiveness process.

What forgiving yourself means

Understand that forgiving yourself and forgiveness, in general, is for you. It frees you from the emotional turmoil and thoughts that keep going around in your mind and are so hard to turn off. Forgiveness is letting go—releasing the emotional turmoil in your life.

Forgiving yourself is about finding the peace and serenity that come after you have released the emotions. It allows you to move forward in life.

Understand what forgiving yourself is not

Forgiving yourself does not mean forgetting about what happened. It does not mean there will be restitution. And it does not mean reconciliation will occur.

Forgetting about what happened leaves your or possibly others open to being a victim again and again. Boundaries need to be placed around the person or situation so that the harm will not happen again. Setting these boundaries means being intentional about what you will or will not tolerate.

Restitution is something that may or may not happen. You cannot expect it. Yet, you can try your best to hold the other person accountable for his or her actions. This may be really difficult, especially in a society that continues to NOT believe the victim to the point of blaming the victim, especially in cases of sexual assault.

Reconciliation may or may not happen depending on the broken boundary. In difficult situations of personal safety and sexual safety, your boundaries need to be intentional. Again, putting these boundaries in place helps ensure that it does not happen again. In some instances, this may make reconciliation impossible.

Forgiving yourself in seven steps

    1    Decide if there is a reason for forgiveness—a boundary violation.

    2    If it is false guilt, let it go—you did nothing wrong.

    3    If your behaviour is a problem, take responsibility for it and change it.

    4    If your issue is shame, be gentle with yourself and take your time to heal.

    5    Know that forgiveness is for healing yourself and releasing your emotional turmoil.

    6    Do not forget what happened—you need to keep yourself safe.

    7    Do not expect restitution or reconciliation—it depends partly on the other person.

The possibility of gratitude in forgiving yourself

Sometimes, at the end of the process, you may be glad for what has changed in your life, and you may start to see how it has made you stronger in some areas or ways. You may find a new purpose and reason for living. This may or may not be your truth. Either way is okay.


Forgiving yourself may or may not be easy. It starts with understanding boundaries. Broken boundaries are what causes the need for forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not needed in cases of false guilt. 

With guilt, take responsibility for your actions.

It is harder with shame that goes to your core. Take your time with forgiveness!

Forgiveness means letting go of the emotional turmoil in your life.

Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. There may or may not be restitution or reconciliation.

You may experience gratitude in the end.

Sign Up for the YourTango Newsletter

Let's make this a regular thing!

It took the woman in the story years before she could forgive herself; find peace, serenity, and gratitude; and share her story.

This article was originally published at Inspirational Insights Counselling, Inc.. Reprinted with permission from the author.