Long ago the Catholic Church instituted a formal spiritual process for the absolution of sins, allowing parishioners to relieve themselves of the burden of guilt and shame for the inevitable wrongs committed against others in life. Now, a pair of new scientific studies shows we might ameliorate these necessary twinges of conscience by acknowledging our transgressions and making amends to others.

Psychologists at Baylor University reported the findings on Sunday in The Journal of Positive Psychology after studying the thoughts and feelings of 269 subjects asked to recall past offenses including romantic betrayals, assaults, gossip, and rejection. In the other study, another 208 people were asked about a hypothetical offense, to further isolate the mental mechanics of guilt and shame experienced by us all.

"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,” study leader Thomas Carpenter told Medical News Today. “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.”

In the first inquiry, the researchers probed study subjects about the depth to which they had forgiven themselves for past offenses and whether they’d attempted to make amends through apology or restitution. They also asked participants to assess the degree to which the wronged person had forgiven them, and whether such forgiveness mattered to their personal senses of morality.

“The people in the study who made the most amends reported feeling the most that self-forgiveness was morally permissible,” Carpenter said in a university press statement. “This process of being able to self-forgive was also made easier if the participant had received forgiveness from the people they had wronged.”

In the second inquiry, Carpenter and his colleagues sought to further test their hypothesis by controlling for the broad variation among offenses reported by the participants. They asked them all to imagine the same hypothetical offenses for which they might feel guilty — such as getting a friend fired from work. Similar to the first study, participants felt varying levels of guilt as well as self-forgiveness, but with one stark difference: Feelings of guilt were unaffected by whether the wronged party chose to forgive or to not forgive.

Interestingly, women experienced a slightly harder time forgiving themselves for transgressions against others.

"The gender difference is interesting," Carpenter said. "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.”

Source: Carpenter, Thomas, Carlisle, Robert D., Tsang, Jo-Ann. Tipping the scales: Conciliatory behavior and the morality of self-forgiveness. The Journal of Positive Psychology. 2014.