When we think about forgiveness, we often focus on forgiving others. As we go through life, people may hurt and disappoint us. With time, wisdom and experience, we often learn to accept apologies and move forward.
But what if you’re the one who needs forgiveness? You may have already extended apologies to others, but you find it difficult to forgive yourself and move on.
It may seem harder to do, but self-forgiveness is important for your well-being. By letting go of self-blame and guilt, you can reduce stress, improve mental health and lead a more fulfilling life.
Read on to understand more about self-forgiveness, its barriers and the steps you can take to find greater peace.
As humans, we are destined to make mistakes. Yet many people learn from a young age that making mistakes is a bad thing or embarrassing.
“Self-forgiveness is all about being aware of who you are and recognizing your regrets, mistakes and shortcomings as part of the human condition,” said Caroline Becker, a licensed professional counselor with Banner Health.
“These regrets are normal and can be about things you did or how you felt in certain situations—like anger, shame, fear or pain.”
The journey to self-forgiveness means treating yourself with the same kindness and understanding you would offer someone else. “It improves self-acceptance and helps silence the inner critic that hinders your healing,” Becker said.
Barriers to self-forgiveness
In an ideal world, we could take responsibility for our mistakes and forgive ourselves. However, this process often doesn’t go this way in real life. The three biggest barriers to self-forgiveness are avoidance, guilt and shame.
“When we make a mistake, it’s often easier to blame others or pretend it didn’t happen,” Becker said. “This denial and avoidance can stop you from moving forward.”
Religious beliefs, societal expectations or family barriers can influence avoidance.
“Sometimes we’re taught at a young age not to think about ourselves too much,” Becker said. “It’s the mindset, ‘I should forgive you, but I can’t think about me.’”
Guilt and shame
Guilt is when you feel you did something that goes against your values. It’s a little voice in your head that says “I messed up.” Guilt can be a helpful reminder to get back on track with your values.
Shame, on the other hand, is when you feel there is something wrong with you. It makes you feel bad about yourself as a person. It’s the belief that you made a mistake, so you are a mistake.
“If your inner critic tends to be hard and unforgiving, or if you believe you don’t deserve forgiveness, self-forgiveness becomes an uphill battle,” Becker said.
Steps toward self-forgiveness
Self-forgiveness can be challenging, especially when dealing with guilt, shame or negative emotions from past actions or decisions.
Becker shared some tips to help you let go of past mistakes and practice self-forgiveness:
1. Acknowledge your emotions: It’s okay to feel anger, guilt, fear and pain. These are part of the human experience.
2. Take responsibility: Accept responsibility for your actions or decisions. Avoid making excuses or blaming others.
3. Practice self-compassion: Show yourself kindness and compassion. Recognize that making a mistake doesn’t make you a mistake as a person. Mistakes are a part of life and they can teach you how to do things better next time.
4. Quiet your inner critic: Replace self-critical thoughts with more compassionate self-talk. When negative thoughts bubble up, ask yourself if you would say the same things to a friend.
5. Put things into perspective: It’s easy to dwell on your failures and overlook your successes. Take a moment each day to recognize the positive contributions you’ve made. This practice shifts your focus toward the good you bring to yourself and others.
6. Find ways to close the door: Some practical ways you can do this are through:
- Imaginary dialogue: Have a pretend conversation with someone you trust and respect, real or imagined. Share your regrets and imagine what they would say in response.
- Sentence completion: Complete the sentence “I forgive myself for …” This can help you confront your actions and feelings.
- Write a letter: Write a letter to yourself detailing your regrets and mistakes. This can be a way to release pent-up emotions.
- Express through art: Express your feelings through art, such as music, painting or any other creative medium. It’s a way to externalize and transform your emotions into something beautiful.
7. Embrace patience: Self-forgiveness can be challenging and takes practice. Don’t give up on yourself. You are worthy of forgiveness. Give yourself some grace and patience.
8. Seek support: Pay attention to your emotions. “They are like signals guiding you to unmet needs,” Becker said.
If you’re constantly angry, sad or emotionally exhausted, it might be a sign that something is missing in your life. Seek help or find ways to meet those needs through therapy or support groups. “Connecting with individuals who understand your journey can provide valuable guidance and encouragement,” Becker said.
Self-forgiveness is a complex but important journey. It starts with awareness, acceptance and acknowledging your emotions. Breaking free from guilt and shame can be challenging, but with time and effort, it’s possible.
Learning to forgive yourself isn’t just a gift to yourself. It’s also a gift to those around you. You can be a better friend and partner when you're at peace with yourself.
If you’d like help with finding self-forgiveness, speak with a licensed behavioral health specialist or call 602-254-4357.