Why Self-Forgiveness Is Sometimes Harder Than Forgiving Someone Else

Jake Fishbein
Jan 8 · 3 min read

Why do people have a hard time forgiving themselves? What does it mean when people are unwilling to forgive themselves?

At the highest level, it means they’re more committed to being right about their story than they are to being happy and living in the present. As humans, we like to punish ourselves. We’re great at it. The more a person punishes him or herself and suffering becomes the new normal, the easier it is to suffer and continuing suffering. It becomes someone’s identity and a constant presence in their life. To let go of that constant and be free terrifies people. Subconsciously, of course. Ask anyone and they’d say they want to be free from self-criticism, self-punishment, guilt, etc. But, the thing is, they know who they are when they hold onto those things and have held onto them for a long time. To let go would be stepping into the unknown. They wouldn’t be sure what defines them.

Photo by Максим Степаненко on Unsplash

It always seems easier to hold on, be right, and stay miserable than it is to let go and be free. That misery is familiar. To leave it behind is terrifying. It’s why people stay in toxic relationships and environments, designed by others or themselves. It’s also why people don’t seek help.

I actually don’t think people are committed to change. They may want it, but they’re not willing to put in the work to make it happen. Ultimately, they don’t want the responsibility that comes with change. Because to change means being different. It means striving forward, rewiring old behavior patterns, and being conscious. It also means accepting that all that’s been may not be anymore. No matter how painful a situation is, letting go of the pain seems to hurt more than holding onto it.

For many people, it’s easier not to forgive themselves and to keep things as they are than to forgive themselves and take sustainable steps to change things. Doing that means confronting things, being honest, and owning up to how things have been, and then choosing to be different time and time again until new habits form.

That can be painful! Looking at what has been and truly owning it is not a comfortable experience. It can hurt, bring up more guilt, and make a person feel a failure. But it’s also a necessary step in forward movement. In order to get somewhere new, a person must first see where they are. You cannot reach a destination on a map without first knowing where you’re starting.

As humans, however, we’re drawn to seeking short-term relief from pain, not to step into it even when confronting it is what will lead to long-term relief. We focus on the present and what’s right in front of us. Seeing long-term impact isn’t one of our strong suits, likely because when we lived in caves it was the short-term that was necessary to tackle when the long-term was far from secure. In the modern world, we’re faced with needing to balance both short-term and long-term perspectives, both individually and societally. When it comes to forgiving ourselves, short-term relief is not a fair swap for discomfort. The lasting impact of holding onto self-resentment is far more negatively impactful than a few moments (be they days, weeks, or months) of self-confrontation to move forward, forgive ourselves, and create something new.