Skip to main content
Log in

Self-forgiveness in Psychology and Psychotherapy: A Critique

  • Psychological Exploration
  • Published:
Journal of Religion and Health Aims and scope Submit manuscript

Abstract

This critique proposes that self-forgiveness is a misleading and inaccurate concept for understanding the conditions to which it is applied. Besides the fact that traditional religion provides no rationale for self-forgiveness, four specific criticisms are presented. (1) Self-forgiveness causes splitting of the self—creating various problems. (2) It involves a conflict of interest between the self that judges and the self that is judged. (3) Through its extreme emphasis on the self, it promotes narcissism and appeals to narcissists. (4) Research indicates that interpersonal forgiveness and self or intrapersonal forgiveness involve different psychological processes. We conclude that self-acceptance is a more accurate and useful term for the process and benefits attributed to self-forgiveness.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in via an institution to check access.

Access this article

We’re sorry, something doesn't seem to be working properly.

Please try refreshing the page. If that doesn't work, please contact support so we can address the problem.

Similar content being viewed by others

References

  • Bauer, L., Duffy, J., Fountain, E., Halling, S., Holzer, M., Jones, E., et al. (1992). Exploring self-forgiveness. Journal of Religion and Health, 31(2), 149–160.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Baumeister, R. F. (1990). Suicide as escape from self. Psychological Review, 97(1), 90–113.

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Blatier, C. (1999). Towards a constructive response to young offenders: Reparation at the levels of justice and individual psychology. Journal of Social Work Practice, 13(2), 211–220.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Coleman, P. W. (1998). The process of forgiveness in marriage and the family. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness (pp. 75–95). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Coyle, C. T. (1999). Self-forgiveness: Dangerous myth? The World of Forgiveness, Vol 2, issue 3 (pp. 6–8). Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Coyle, C. T., & Enright, R. D. (1997). Forgiveness intervention with postabortion men. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(6), 1042–1046.

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • DiBlasio, F. A. (1998). The use of a decision-based forgiveness intervention within intergenerational family therapy. Journal of Family Therapy, 20(1), 77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • DiBlasio, F. A. (2000). Decision-based forgiveness treatment in cases of marital infidelity. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 37(2), 149–158.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dillon, R. S. (2001). Self-forgiveness and self-respect. Ethics, 112, 53–83.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Enright, R. D. (1996). Counseling within the forgiveness triad: On forgiving, receiving forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. Counseling & Values, 40(2), 107.

    Google Scholar 

  • Enright, R. D. (2002). Forgiveness is a choice: A step-by-step process for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

    Google Scholar 

  • Enright, R. D., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000). Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Exline, J. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Expressing forgiveness and repentance: Benefits and barriers. Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 133–155). New York: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  • Exline, J. J., Baumeister, R. F., Zell, A. L., Kraft, A. J., & Witvliet, C. V. O. (2008). Not so innocent: Does seeing one’s own capability for wrongdoing predict forgiveness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(3), 495–515.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Fergusson, D. M., Horwood, J., & Ridder, E. M. (2006). Abortion in young women and subsequent mental health. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(1), 16–24.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Fisher, M. L., & Exline, J. J. (2006). Self-forgiveness versus excusing: The roles of remorse, effort and acceptance of responsibility. Self and Identity, 5, 127–146.

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Flanigan, B. (1996). Forgiving yourself. New York: MacMillan.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fleming, J. H., & Darley, J. M. (1989). Perceiving choice and constraint: The effects of contextual and behavioral cues on attitude attribution. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(1), 27–40.

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Fosdick, H. E. (1932). As I see religion. New York: Harper.

    Google Scholar 

  • Fosdick, H. E. (1943). On being a real person. New York: Harper.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gassin, E. (2001). Interpersonal forgiveness from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 29(3), 187–200.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gehm, J. (1999). Restorative justice, forgiveness and the ritual of penance. The World of Forgiveness, Vol 2(4) (pp. 16–20). Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gosling, P., Denizeau, M., & Oberle, D. (2006). Denial of responsibility: A new mode of dissonance reduction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 722–733.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, J. H., & Fincham, J. D. (2005). Self-forgiveness: The step child of forgiveness research. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(5), 621–637.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hall, J. H., & Fincham, J. D. (2008). The temporal course of self-forgiveness. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology., 27(2), 174–202.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L., Sherry, S. B., Habke, M., Parkin, M., Lam, R. W., et al. (2003). The interpersonal expression of perfection: Perfectionistic self-presentation and psychological distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(6), 1303–1325.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Holmgren, M. R. (1999). Should we forgive ourselves? The world of forgiveness, Vol 2(3) (pp. 12–15). Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Holmgren, M. R. (2002). Forgiveness and self-forgiveness in psychotherapy. In J. G. Murphy & S. Lamb (Eds.), Before forgiving: Cautionary views of forgiveness in psychotherapy (pp. 112–135). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hope, L., Memon, A., & McGeorge, P. (2004). Understanding pretrial publicity: Predecisional distortion of evidence by mock jurors. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 10(2), 111–119.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Horton, C. H. (1999). Self-forgiveness: A reflection. The world of forgiveness, Vol 2(3) (pp. 16–19). Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Klein, M. (1946/1975). Notes on some schizoid mechanisms. In R. Money-Kyrie (Ed.), The writings of Melanie Klein. (Vol. III, pp. 1–24). New York: Free Press.

  • Lamb, S., & Murphy, J. G. (Eds.). (2002). Before forgiving: Cautionary views of forgiveness in psychotherapy. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lasch, C. (1978). The culture of narcissism. New York: Norton.

    Google Scholar 

  • Leith, K. P., & Baumeister, R. F. (1998). Empathy, shame, guilt and narratives of interpersonal conflict: Guilt-prone people are better at perspective-taking. Journal of Personality, 66, 1–37.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lin, W., Mack, D., Enright, R. D., Krahn, D., & Baskin, T. W. (2004). Effects of forgiveness therapy on anger, mood, and vulnerability to substance use among inpatient substance-dependent clients. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72(6), 1114–1121.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Linn, M., & Linn, D. (1978). Healing life’s hurts. New York: Paulist Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Maslow, A. (1954). Motivation and personality, (1970) (2nd ed.). New York: Harper.

    Google Scholar 

  • Masterson, J. F. (1988). Search for the real self: Unmasking the personality disorders of our age. New York: The Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCullough, M. E. (2001). Forgiveness: Who does it and how do they do it? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 10(6), 194–197.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McCullough, M. E. (2008). Beyond revenge: The evolution of the forgiveness instinct. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCullough, M. E., Bellah, C. G., Kilpatrick, S. D., & Johnson, J. L. (2001). Vengefulness: Relationships with forgiveness, ruminating, wellbeing, and the Big Five. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 601–610.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McCullough, M. E., Pargament, K. I., & Thoresen, C. E. (2000). The psychology of forgiveness: History, conceptual issues, and overview. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 1–14). New York: Guilford.

    Google Scholar 

  • McCullough, M. E., & Witvliet, C. V. (2002). The psychology of forgiveness. In C. R. Snyder & S. J. Lopez (Eds.), Handbook of positive psychology (pp. 446–458). New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • McGraw, K. M. (1987). Guilt following transgression: An attribution of responsibility approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(3), 247–256.

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • McKimmie, B. M., Terry, D. J., Hogg, M. A., Manstead, A. S., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (2003). I’m a hypocrite, but so is everyone else: Group support and the reduction of cognitive dissonance. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research and Practice, 7(3), 214–224.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Monte, C. F., & Sollod, R. N. (2003). Beneath the mask: An introduction to theories of personality (7th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

    Google Scholar 

  • North, J. (1998). The ideal of forgiveness: A philosopher’s exploration. In R. D. Enright & J. North (Eds.), Exploring forgiveness (pp. 15–34). Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • O’Connor, K., Stravynski, A., & Hallam, R. (1997). Freedom and therapy: From self-liberation to self-control. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 34(2), 144–153.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Patton, J. (2003). Is human forgiveness possible? A pastoral are perspective. Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Peale, N. V. (1937). The art of living. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury.

    Google Scholar 

  • Peale, N. V. (1952). The power of positive thinking. New York: Prentice-Hall.

    Google Scholar 

  • Pyszczynski, T., Greenberg, J., Solomon, S., Arndt, J., & Schimel, J. (2004). Why do people need self-esteem? A theoretical and empirical review. Psychological Bulletin, 130(3), 435–468.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ross, S. R., Hertenstein, M. J., & Wrobel, T. A. (2007). Maladaptive correlates of the failure to forgive self and others: Further evidence for a two-component model of forgiveness. Journal of Personality Assessment, 88(2), 158–167.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Ross, S. R., Kendall, A. C., Matters, K. G., Wrobel, T. A., & Rye, M. S. (2004). A personological examination of self- and other-forgiveness in the five factor model. Journal of Personality Assessment, 82(2), 207–214.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Shahar, G., Trower, P., Iqbal, Z., Birchwood, M., Davidson, L., & Chadwick, P. (2004). The person in recovery from acute and severe psychosis: The role of dependency, self-criticism, and efficacy. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 74(4), 480–488.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Silvia, P. J., & Gendolla, G. H. (2001). On introspection and self-perception: Does self-focused attention enable accurate self-knowledge? Review of General Psychology, 5(3), 241–269.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Smedes, L. B. (1996). The art of forgiving: When you need to forgive and don’t know how. New York: Ballantine Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stapel, D. A., & Blanton, H. (2004). From seeing to being: Subliminal social comparisons affect implicit and explicit self-evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 87(4), 468–481.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Strelan, P. (2007). Who forgives others, themselves, and situations? The roles of narcissism, guilt, self-esteem, and agreeableness. Personality and Individual Differences, 42(2), 259–269.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Strube, M. J., & Roemmele, L. A. (1985). Self-enhancement, self-assessment and self-evaluative task choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 49(4), 981–993.

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Tangney, J. P., Boone, A. L., & Dearing, R. (2005). Forgiving the self: Conceptual issues and empirical findings. In E. L. Worthington (Ed.), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 143–158). New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Turnage, B. F., Jacinto, G. A., & Kirven, J. (2003). Reality therapy, domestic violence survivors, and self-forgiveness. International Journal of Reality Therapy, 22(2), 24–27.

    Google Scholar 

  • Twenge, J. M. (2006). Generation me. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The Narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York: Free Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vaknin, S. (2007). Malignant self-love: Narcissism Revisited. 1st ed. 8th rev. imp.. Prague & Skopje: Narcissus Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • van den Bos, K. (2003). On the subjective quality of social justice: The role of affect as information in the psychology of justice judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(3), 482–498.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Vignoles, V. L., Regalia, C., Manzi, C., Golledge, J., & Scabini, E. (2006). Beyond self-esteem: Influence of multiple motives on identity construction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(2), 308–333.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Vitz, P. C. (1977). Psychology as religion: The cult of self worship. (1994) Grand rapids (2nd ed.). MI: Eerdmans.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vitz, P. (1999). A critique of self-forgiveness. The world of forgiveness, Vol 2(3) (pp. 8–11). Madison, WI: International Forgiveness Institute.

    Google Scholar 

  • Vitz, P. C., & Mango, P. (1997). Kernbergian psychodynamics and religious aspects of the forgiveness process. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 25(1), 72–80.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wilson, T. D., & Brekke, N. (1994). Mental contamination and mental correction: Unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 117–142.

    Article  PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  • Wohl, M. J. A., DeShea, L., & Wahkinney, R. L. (2008). Looking within: Measuring state self-forgiveness and its relationship to psychological well being. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 40(1), 1–10.

    Google Scholar 

  • Worthington, E. L. (Ed.). (1998). Dimensions of forgiveness: Psychological research and theological perspectives. Pennsylvania: Templeton Foundation Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Worthington, E. L. (2003). Forgiving and reconciling: Bridges to wholeness and hope. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Worthington, E. L. (2006). Forgiveness and reconciliation: Theory and application. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Zechmeister, J. S., & Romero, C. (2002). Victim and offender accounts of interpersonal conflict: Autobiographical narratives of forgiveness and unforgiveness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(4), 675–686.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul C. Vitz.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Vitz, P.C., Meade, J.M. Self-forgiveness in Psychology and Psychotherapy: A Critique. J Relig Health 50, 248–263 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-010-9343-x

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10943-010-9343-x

Keywords

Navigation