Self-forgiveness may not be a good thing

Self-forgiveness may not be a good thing

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VIRGINIA, March 1, 2014 — For some people, passion, joy, direction and focus in life can be summed up with the simple line from John Masefield’s poem Sea Fever, “All I need is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.” For others, however, that is not the case.

No one wants to feel down, discouraged and somber, and there are ways to fight that malaise.

In the buttoned-down 50’s, psychologist Abraham Maslow, a so-called humanist, developed what he called the Hierarchy of Needs which proposed five levels of progressive fulfillment. The premise was that each level had to be achieved before accomplishing the next level. The pyramid was the first reference to what is known today as “positive psychology.”

Maslow hypothesized the five levels in a pyramid form in ascending order of predominance as:

  1. Physiological needs such as food, water, warmth, rest etc;
  2. Safety needs including self-security.
  3.  Belongingness and love needs including intimate relationships, friendship.
  4. Esteem needs with prestige and accomplishment
  5. Self-actualization as defined by the achievement of goals, potentials and creative activities.


Some 40 years later, then president of the American Psychological Association Dr. Martin Seligman determined if psychopathology is causation of negativity, then human strengths and positive qualities are the path to happiness. Seligman went on to fortify Maslow’s hierarchy with newer findings.

Seligman decided if certain characteristics of negative thinking can make folks unhappy, then positive characteristics should have a reverse affect and set about to find which characteristics would apply.

Seligman determined Maslow’s needs as essential basic necessities of pleasant functionality but concluded focus on additional areas for happiness and emotional resilience defined as:

  1. Gratitude as the primary component of satisfaction and happiness achieved via having what you want and wanting what you have. The want/have have/want must coincide and intersect.
  2. Optimism meaning overcoming a propensity for negativity and focusing on the potential of success and achievement, not failure and rejection.
  3. Mindfulness as described by living and being ‘in the now’ putting aside random, wandering thoughts that may invade the ‘now’ moment.
  4. Spirituality for a greater sense of meaning in and of life and to provide resilience in times of trouble. Spirituality does not necessarily translate to religion but a sense of influences, perhaps ethereal, bigger than us.
  5. Seligman suggests a state of being characterized by the term “flow’ but such a state may not induce a higher level of happiness so much as greater focus on the aforementioned ‘now’.
  6. Altruism or the giving of self to others and the happiness of those in need.
  7. Forgiveness as means to let the past go and move forward, dispense with anger and loathing and eliminate the associated negativity.

Seligman provides many sub-sets and additional resources of happiness exploration. His basis of “using strengths and virtues” as roadmaps to attain a higher level of happiness are core values of his theories.

Psychologists today assert self-acceptance as key to happiness but this criterion may misguide and stem from younger psychologists brought up as a youth in the ‘me’ generation which spawned the premise that everyone is unique and should wallow in the glory of who and what they are.

Perhaps such premise disallows for development, overcoming negativity, unacceptable aspects of character and personality and does not prepare youth for adult life.

Often, young folks going into the adult world are met with the harsh realization that the ‘I’m special’ thinking doesn’t go far. To illustrate this point, the ex-personnel manager for a large telecommunications company complained many young job applicant brought little more to the table than the ill-defined and ambiguous qualification of ‘I’m a people person’.

Building on strength and virtue does allow for greater levels of happiness but happiness is also dependent on interpersonal relationships, as well as inner personal, and if one accepts multiple personality character flaws and uses self-acceptance as reason for not pursuing personal growth, stagnation. Immaturity and eventually, loneliness can result.

Many of today’s mental health professionals expound a program of unconditional, non-judgmental self-forgiveness, self-acceptance and self-love with unqualified self-approval and to shed one’s self of guilt.

How can self- lessons be learned if the self is not held accountable?

The self must be loved, but the balance of the self- program can be a slippery slope to not accepting self-responsibly, disconcert for behavior that should generate guilt and self-disrespect even self-loathing. These are mechanisms that guide our behavior and teach us right from wrong.

The same slippery slope can create an atmosphere of self-forgiveness for pending and anticipated poor performance and behaviors.  The New Testament of Christianity writes forgiveness comes from The Lord and the old Testament claims forgiveness can only come from victims of transgression.

Guilt, negative self- worth, reduced self-esteem and self-anger serve to remind folks to not repeat the behavior that generated such feelings. Dismissing them can lead to disrespect for them. Use negative emotions for positive change but keep them close to the heart and memory.

Thinking and acing in a manner that avoids self-dislike keeps eyes front and center on achieving self-betterment and holds feet to the fire of self-accountability.


Paul Mountjoy is a Virginia based psychotherapist

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