Having close relationships with other people is beneficial for our emotional, mental, and even physical health. However, personal relationships can also involve hurt, pain, and betrayal. Sometimes we are on the receiving end of that pain because of something hurtful done by a friend, family member, or partner. Other times we are the ones who have caused the pain, whether intentionally or unintentionally. When we realize we have hurt someone important to us, it can be difficult to figure out how to move on.
Dr. Marilyn Cornish, a psychologist in Auburn, AL, conducts scientific research on how you can move forward positively after you have hurt someone you care about. She has proposed a self-forgiveness process that can help your relationships and also improve your own wellbeing. This process is the Four Rs of Genuine Self-Forgiveness, which involves Responsibility, Remorse, Restoration, and Renewal.
Four Rs of Genuine Self-Forgiveness
If we have done something to hurt another person, we need to own up to it. We have to acknowledge to ourselves that our actions—or our failures to act—were hurtful to someone else. It is a natural human tendency to try to justify our actions or explain away the hurt. Of course, most of the time we do have reasons for our behaviors. In fact, we may have even been trying to do the right thing. But sometimes our intentions do not match the actual impact of our behaviors. We may have intended well but still have caused harm. In these cases, we can accept responsibility for the impact of our actions. When exploring responsibility, it is often helpful to think about our needs or motivations that may have led us to act in a certain way. The more we can understand why we did what we did, the better able we will be to do something different in the future.
After accepting responsibility, we should acknowledge and express our emotional reactions to the hurt we caused. Although they are painful, feelings of guilt and remorse are productive emotions after causing harm. This is because they lead us to take steps to make things right and to avoid similar situations in the future. Many people who are struggling with self-forgiveness, however, feel very shameful about what happened. Shame often involves a global negative evaluation of the whole self and can lead to self-destructive behaviors.
To reduce shame, it is helpful to remind ourselves that everyone makes mistakes and that negative actions do not need to result in an identity as a bad person. By taking this perspective, we are instead left with feelings of remorse about our actions, not shame about ourselves as people. Ways of expressing remorse include journaling and talking with a trusted person. Counseling is often very helpful, too, especially when feelings of shame are involved.
Exploring our remorse will likely lead to the desire to make things right in some way. This process of restoration can involve attempts to repair the damage caused by our actions. If appropriate, we can make amends directly to the people we hurt. For example, through an apology and engaging in positive actions toward them. If direct amends are not possible or would not be helpful, indirect amends may be possible. We can do positive things to help others not directly affected by our hurtful actions, which demonstrates our commitment to behaving in a more prosocial way in the future. Restoration also involves a recommitment to our personal values that may have been violated when we hurt others. We should again assess the needs and motivations that led us to act in the way we did. We can then find healthy, values-focused ways to meet our needs in the future.
Even after reducing shame and making adequate amends, some may experience lingering negative feelings about the harm caused. But, to continue holding onto these negative feelings and judgments after addressing the wrong serves no functional purpose. At this point, then, it is healthy and appropriate to release our lingering self-criticism. This does not mean to forget that what we did was hurtful or to no longer wish we had acted differently, as these can serve as important reminders to avoid similar transgressions in the future. Instead, it means acknowledging our intrinsic worth as people, setting aside lingering guilt and self-punishment, and approaching ourselves with compassion, acceptance, and kindness. This final step can be seen as a personal renewal and completes the self-forgiveness process.
If you are attempting to become a more self-forgiving person, try the Four Rs of Genuine Self-Forgiveness with an event in which you caused a small amount of hurt to another person. Getting practice with each component of the self-forgiveness process will build your skills and your confidence. As you see the power of restoration for your close relationships and the benefits of renewal for your personal wellbeing, you can then apply the self-forgiveness process for larger regrets that you may be struggling to move on from.
In addition, counseling can be very helpful if you are struggling with self-forgiveness. If you live in the Auburn-Opelika area, consider counseling with Dr. Cornish at Auburn Psychological Wellness Center. Dr. Cornish has developed an approach to therapy that integrates the Four Rs of Genuine Self-Forgiveness for people struggling to move on after relational transgressions. This approach has been scientifically tested and found to be helpful for people struggling with past regrets. Dr. Cornish takes a compassionate stance to help clients move through their shame and self-criticism. She can help clients improve their personal and relational wellbeing through self-forgiveness. Please reach out if you would like more information about self-forgiveness counseling.