Florida State University Researcher Explains How To Practice And Perfect 'Self-Forgiveness'

Researcher Heather Maranges outlines the impacts of 'divine forgiveness' and childhood experiences on our ability to forgive ourselves.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 31, 2024

A recent study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that when a person's childhood is filled with unpredictability, they lack the self-control to forgive themselves.

I recently spoke to the lead author Heather Maranges—an assistant professor at Florida State University's Department of Psychology—to discuss the role of childhood experiences in divine forgiveness and self-forgiveness. Here is a summary of our conversation.

Can faith in divine forgiveness play a role in helping individuals forgive themselves?

For people who believe in God, feeling forgiveness from God may make it easier to forgive oneself. On the other hand, feeling like God has not forgiven you may make it harder to forgive yourself.

Feeling forgiveness from others, including God for believers, makes it easier to forgive oneself. The implication of this is that one should seek relevant others' forgiveness after a transgression, which can not only encourage one to forgive oneself but also may provide a boost to one's self-control. In turn, self-forgiveness (an emotionally and cognitively taxing process) is supported.

How do childhood experiences impact our ability to forgive ourselves as adults?

Childhood experiences, especially those that have to do with unpredictability, may undermine our ability to forgive ourselves for shortcomings or transgressions as adults. Unpredictability here entails uncertainty in the presence of other people, a social aspect—in schedules and a secure, consistent environment.

Childhood unpredictability can result from, for example, a child not being certain whether their parents or other caregivers will be there for them or how they will behave, what will happen in their home that day, what their schedule or routines will be from day to day, or where it is safe to play.

How can understanding childhood unpredictability help us improve self-forgiveness and influence our mental well-being?

Reflecting on one's own childhood experiences can provide insight into how one relates to others and oneself. An unpredictable childhood encourages disconnect from others and finding quick solutions to problems, which can translate into lower self-control. Practicing self-control across domains can build up that skill. Still, it may be especially helpful to focus on one's self-forgiveness goal and commit to spending time and energy on that process.

Self-forgiveness is a paramount process for having good psychological health, making childhood experiences and believers' experiences of divine forgiveness foundational for well-being.

What does self-control have to do with self-forgiveness?

Forgiving oneself takes mental and emotional energy, so having more self-control can support the process. This is important because childhood experiences of unpredictability make it harder to develop good self-control skills, likely undermining self-forgiveness later.

Research and life experience suggest that you can improve your self-control by using it, like strengthening a muscle. Choosing a goal and practicing behaviors that lead to that goal according to a detailed plan enables you to both build your self-control and make productive strategies and habits easier and more habitual. Pulling this all together:

  1. If you want to improve your self-control in the domain of self-forgiveness, have a clear goal and make a plan. Maybe the broad goal is to be more forgiving of yourself, which you can specify further by making the goal to be as forgiving as a forgiving and kind person you know (or God): "I want to be as understanding and forgiving as my best friend, who sees the best in me, encourages me to take responsibility for my misdeed, talks about how I will avoid that behavior in the future and grow, and ultimately forgives me."
  2. Now, you can make a specific plan to meet that goal—such as writing down the transgression in a special journal, taking responsibility for it, describing how you will avoid it, what you have learned from it, how you will be better as a result, and forgiving yourself.
  3. If you're a believer, you could also answer these questions as an interaction with your Higher Power. For many people, knowing that God forgives is key to self-forgiveness because it restores their status as a good person, reduces negative feelings (e.g., shame), and provides a model of forgiveness. So, when you've felt you've done something wrong, it's time to shore up those resources and practice your self-forgiveness and self-control.

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