- Melanie Lopes, MFT
The Path to Self-Forgiveness
We all make mistakes. We all do or say things that we later regret. No one is perfect... Sometimes it’s a huge blunder and sometimes it’s a small slip up, but either way, there are consequences.
Whether what you did had life-changing consequences or relatively minor impacts, sometimes the hardest part is dealing with the intense feelings that come with it – guilt, shame, regret, anxiety, despair, anger with yourself – and dealing with the difficulty in letting go, moving on, and forgiving yourself.
There can be any number of reasons as to why you struggle to forgive yourself -
Perhaps it’s too soon and you still need to time to process what happened and the consequences.
Perhaps you have a tendency to dwell on things and you have a hard time letting go of the past.
Maybe you’re not ready to truly face what you did in order to move on or you’d rather just forget that it happened or deny that you had anything to do with it.
Or maybe you feel undeserving of forgiveness and you believe that if you forgive yourself you’ll be letting yourself off the hook somehow.
Whatever the case is, I think it’s important to clarify that self-forgiveness is more than just putting it all behind you and moving on.
In order to forgive yourself, you have to fully acknowledge and accept what you have done and have compassion for yourself.
This does not mean excusing what you did - it means offering yourself understanding for how and why it happened and learning from it so that you can make better choices in the future.
When you are unwilling or unable to forgive yourself, it can keep you in a state of stress and anxiety - constantly worrying how other people view you, worrying that you’ll make the same mistake again, and worrying that there’s something wrong with you. This can feed the belief that you are a bad person and contribute to low self-esteem and feelings of low self-worth.
Being able to forgive yourself, on the other hand, can help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and help you feel better about yourself.
Self-forgiveness opens up the opportunity for you to grow and learn from your experiences and it helps clear up your mind, instead of spending time ruminating on what you did, which in turn helps improve focus and productivity.
It can also help improve your relationships through your willingness to accept responsibility for your actions and work toward repairing whatever damage might have occurred.
Forgiving yourself is challenging and at times it is far easier to forgive others than it is to forgive yourself... but it’s not impossible.
Here are some tips for how to get on the path to self-forgiveness:
Be curious about yourself and take a closer look at your feelings, thoughts, values, or patterns that led you to act in the way that you did. Paying attention in this way can help provide you with better understanding as to why you did what you did, what you need, and what could help you move forward.
Acknowledge your feelings.
Rather than pushing your feelings of guilt, shame, and anger away, acknowledge all of the feelings that come up. When you notice a feeling coming up, name it. Say to yourself: “I’m feeling really guilty”, “I’m angry with myself”, etc. When you take the time to acknowledge your feelings in this way it allows you to step back and observe what’s happening rather than getting overwhelmed and swept away in a downward spiral of self-criticism.
Offer yourself compassion.
That tendency to beat yourself up, think you’re a horrible person, or that something is wrong with you, adds to your anxiety and stress and it can hold you back and keep you stuck. Remind yourself that it is normal to have strong feelings when you do something that causes harm to others or to yourself or that goes against your values.
Try to offer yourself understanding for what you did – this doesn’t mean excusing it or justifying it – but try to understand what you were reacting to.
Sometimes it can be hard to offer yourself compassion. When that’s the case, try imagining what words of support and understanding you might say to a loved one in your shoes and then try saying it to yourself.
Acknowledge and accept your part in what happened.
It’s natural to look for excuses and justifications for what you did as a way to help reduce the burden of responsibility and reduce your own guilt. But even if the justifications are valid and it does help reduce your guilt, you still have to accept your part in it. Placing blame elsewhere can lead you to believe that you had no choice in the matter and that you were powerless to do anything different, and this then feeds the belief that you are powerless to make change.
A vast majority of the time, this is simply not true. You have choice in your actions and when you can accept responsibility, you recognize your own power to do something different in the future.
Acknowledge what parts you had control over and what parts you didn’t.
Sometimes when you already feel a lot of guilt, shame, or insecurity, you can be quick to take the blame or take responsibility for something that you didn’t have control over. You might be beating yourself up for not foreseeing a consequence or a problem and not preventing it from happening, or thinking that you could somehow control someone else’s behavior.
Take a look at the situation realistically. Are you blaming yourself for something you had no control over? Remember, you ultimately can’t make someone do something, they are responsible for their behavior and you are responsible for yours.
Learn from it.
Once you can understand what happened and why, take the time to think about what you can learn from the experience. What might you do better next time? What will help in the future?
If there is an opportunity to apologize for what you’ve done or fix a mistake, go for it. Apologizing to others may not always be possible, or even advisable in some cases, and sometimes there is no fix for what has been done. But where it is possible, have the courage to do what’s necessary so that you can minimize any feelings of regret that may come up later for not doing more. Making amends also includes apologizing to yourself and making a commitment to do better.
Keep perspective and change the narrative.
When you get stuck in guilt and shame, you can become so fixated on what you’ve done that it can be hard to see the bigger picture. Try to step back and consider the bigger story of your life and see how this experience fits in.
What meaning do you want to give it? When you look back 10 or 20 years from now how would you like to view this experience? Is it a defining feature of your life or just another bump in the road? Did it ruin your life or was it a challenging period that you were able to move through and learn from?
It may be hard to do all of this work on your own and it can help to have an additional perspective on the matter. Ask for help and support from someone you trust or seek out professional support. Having someone else help you to understand the how and why behind what happened and help you see your options for moving forward can help accelerate the learning process and provide you with the necessary support along the way.
I want to reiterate that self-forgiveness is challenging and even if you are able to start trying all of these tips, it’s not necessarily going to happen overnight. It takes time and commitment, so be patient with yourself and with the process, and be persistent because it’s worth it. Imagine the relief that you would feel if you are able to forgive yourself and imagine how your life could improve if you could give yourself the opportunity to learn, grow, and move forward.
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