When we think about forgiveness, we often focus on the need to forgive others. Going through life, we are bound to be wronged, hurt and disappointed by others. Hopefully as we’ve gotten older, and with great wisdom and experience, we’ve learned to accept a sincere apology, let bygones be bygones and forgive others in order to move on from the past.
But what if the tables are turned, and you are the one in need of forgiveness? Maybe you’ve already apologized to someone, but you aren’t letting yourself off the hook. If you’re willing to forgive others, aren’t you worthy of forgiveness too?
Why does it seem harder to forgive yourself?
“Forgiveness is a lot easier when you have the external situation of another person who’s done something wrong, but looking at yourself, your choices, past behaviors and decisions it can be confusing for many,” said Scott Bartlett, a case management director at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “The process of forgiving yourself forces you to face the reality of how you treat yourself.”
Are you harsh, critical and unforgiving most of the time, or do you give yourself some slack? Do you allow the critic in your head to run your life? Maybe you’ve even told yourself you don’t deserve to be forgiven. Or possibly you allow others a lot more leeway for bad behavior but hold yourself to an impossibly high standard (Perfectionists, take note!).
“Yes, the major hurdle is the relationship to yourself,” Bartlett said. “If that inner critic can’t be silenced, or you don’t feel you deserve to be released from the guilt of what you did or didn’t do, as is the case for many people who have suffered serious abuse or trauma, it will run your life for you and keep you from letting up on yourself.”
The benefits of self-forgiveness
As Bartlett mentioned, a lack of self-forgiveness can hold you back from living life. But the act of forgiving yourself can break those self-imposed chains. True self-forgiveness is healthy and necessary to be able to live your best life—to move forward.
- Give you peace of mind
- Reduce anxiety and stress
- Improve relationships with yourself and others
- Increase your sense of humility
- Provide relief
- Help you move on
- Deepen your sense of compassion
If you’re struggling to find a way to forgive yourself, here are some tips you can use to begin to let go of the past and start a new path toward acceptance.
1. Accept that the past is the past—it can’t be changed
Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Very often the mistakes we make are not done in malice but out of lack of knowledge. Rather than wallowing in feelings of guilt, regret and self-loathing, focus instead on the lessons that can be learned. To do this, you need to first acknowledge that the past is the past—there is no red pill or blue pill or time machine. Instead, you can learn to do things differently the next time around.
“Feeling guilty is usually connected to the awareness that your actions violated your own code of ethics or self-expectations, while regret may be less painful in that you may be looking back at an error wishing you had made a different choice,” Bartlett said. “In this sense, you can use this error as a lesson learned to do things differently the next time around.”
2. Speak the truth
When something goes wrong, the fireworks of self-loathing, guilt and shame go off in our brains making it really hard to think clearly or see through the smoky haze. In this case, it can help to acknowledge what you did out loud, on paper or with a safe friend. Whichever method you choose, getting what happened out of your foggy head can help you recognize what happened and accept responsibility for your part in it. If you can recognize what behaviors and actions led to the problem, you can take steps to make effective changes.
3. Recognize your unrealistic expectations for yourself.
Examine the differences between what you expect of others and what you expect of yourself. As Alexander Pope wisely said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Self-forgiveness is about self-kindness to yourself. Living your best life isn’t about perfection—it’s just not possible. Just as you embrace, forgive and love your imperfect friends, it’s time to embrace your imperfect self—the good and not-so-good. Give yourself a little love, kindness and compassion. Talk to yourself as you would a best friend or a child. Recognizing that making a mistake doesn’t make you a mistake can help you practice forgiveness for yourself and others.
4. Put things into perspective
Oftentimes, we remember all the things that went wrong and not all the things that went right. Once a day, think about (and even write down) all the kind and loving things you’ve done and recognize the positive impact you have. This practice will help you see all the good that you bring to yourself and others and not on a single transgression or mistake.
5. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.
Self-forgiveness can be tough and take some practice. But one thing you shouldn’t ever do is give up on yourself. You are worthy of forgiveness; just give yourself some grace and patience. You may want to consider working with a licensed mental health specialist who can help you work through some of the intense feelings and hurdles you’re having.
“Your ability to forgive others is directly tied to the ability to forgive yourself; the skills are the same,” Bartlett said. “It’s all about acceptance. Accept your imperfections and your humanity. Accept that you don’t need others to be perfect and accept that you don’t need to be perfect either. That means you can stop punishing yourself. And if you can ease up on that, you may find a deep well of compassion inside you that you can finally use on yourself.”