Research published in The Journal of Positive Psychology claims that it is easier to forgive ourselves for hurting another person if we first make amends, "or give our inner selves a 'moral OK.'"
Psychology researchers, from Baylor University in Waco, TX, report the findings of two studies.
One study involved 269 participants recalling previous offenses - such as romantic betrayals, physical injuries, gossip and rejection - they had committed in their lives. In the other study, 208 people were questioned about a hypothetical offense.
Participants in the first study were quizzed on:
- How much they have forgiven themselves for an actual offense
- How much they had tried such efforts as apology, asking forgiveness and restitution
- How much they felt the other person had forgiven them
- How much they saw self-forgiveness as morally appropriate.
The people in the study who made the most amends reported feeling the most that self-forgiveness was morally permissible. This process of being able to self-forgive was also made easier if the participants had received forgiveness from the people they had wronged.
However, there was a broad variation in the types of offense reported by the participants, so the second study was set up by the researchers to further test their hypotheses.
This second study asked the participants about a hypothetical scenario in which they had to imagine failing to take the blame for an action that caused a friend's firing.
This study reported similar results to the first experiment, though one difference was that there was little effect from receiving someone else's forgiveness on whether the participant forgave themselves or not.
Overall, the research showed that the more serious the offense was, and the more guilty the perpetrator felt, the less likely they were to forgive themselves. But making amends could help the wrongdoers reduce their feelings of guilt.
Women less self-forgiving than men
Interestingly, women were also generally found to be less self-forgiving than men. We asked study author Thomas Carpenter, a doctoral student in psychology in Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, why he thought this was.
"The gender difference is interesting," he replied. "First, I should note that in absolute terms, it is not large. However, a variety of studies have found on-and-off gender differences in self-forgiveness over the years. Because the differences aren't huge, they haven't been the subject of much investigation. It's a great question for future research, though."
Carpenter stresses that the study's main finding is not so much about receiving forgiveness as how our moral attitudes play a part in self-forgiveness.
He told Medical News Today:
"The idea is that the act of trying to do the right thing, almost a sort of penance, helps the situation feel more balanced and gives us moral permission to let go. We hypothesized that people would actually see it as less moral to forgive themselves unless they had sought to make amends first. In other words, we suspected that people actually are withholding self-forgiveness until they have had a chance to at least try to make things right.
Given that moral attitudes toward self-forgiveness were one of the strongest predictors of self-forgiveness across both studies, our research suggests that the process of morally refusing or allowing ourselves to self-forgive is actually quite important in the self-forgiveness process."
Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study by Canadian researchers that suggested the "heaviness" of guilt is more than a metaphor. The researchers published four studies on "embodied cognition" in the journal PLOS ONE, describing how these feelings can be "grounded in subjective bodily sensation," with the sensation of guilt manifesting as a physical heaviness.