Have you ever fallen out with someone or had an argument and the other person hasn’t forgiven you? Perhaps they were unable to let something go that happened in the heat of the moment?
It could be that you lost your temper and shouted, and the other person couldn’t forgive you for it.
Interestingly, when the other person is unable to forgive and move past the moment, this can be just as – even more sometimes -, damaging than you losing your temper in the first place.
That sense of not being forgiven for being human and, likewise, not acknowledging mistakes or apologising can lead to bad feelings and destroy relationships.
It’s useful to think of how forgiveness works with others and use that as a point of reference to guide you on how to forgive yourself.
What is self-forgiveness and how do you do it?
True self-forgiveness is an act, not just words or thoughts. To understand it fully it helps to be completely aware of what forgiveness is. Usually, forgiveness is needed when you experience “big” negative emotions such as anger, rage, resentment, regret, and frustration in relation to something you’ve done
As is common in the human experience, it’s usually a lot easier to forgive others than it is to forgive ourselves. We usually hold ourselves to a higher account because of that stern inner critic (more on this later).
Being able to forgive yourself isn’t about letting yourself get away with things, it’s actually important to facilitate self-awareness. It helps you learn what makes you act in certain ways and how to manage yourself more healthily going forward.
To forgive yourself in a meaningful way there are a few things you need to do…
- Identify the emotions you’re experiencing
- Process the emotions – really sit with them and come to an understanding
- Acknowledge that you’ve made a mistake
- Take accountability for the mistake, admit it, express remorse, and apologise
- Words without action aren’t enough to embody true self-forgiveness, you’ll also need to learn from mistakes and adjust your thoughts and behaviours to match
The four R’s of self-forgiveness are: responsibility, remorse, restoration, and renewal. These emotions and actions are worked through by applying the points below.
Why is it so important to be able to forgive yourself?
We live in a society which, unfortunately, often emphasises putting pressure on yourself, being at “your best” all of the time. In reality, though, we’re human and human things happen.
We have feelings, emotions, we face great difficulties, and we clash with others. All of this is normal.
There are many reasons that learning how to self-forgive is important. Mostly, it’s an act that helps you to more successfully manage your mental health. Being able to learn and grow from mistakes helps bring peace and calm to your inner world. It’s also a practice that helps to strengthen your self-esteem and resilience.
Physical health can also be affected. If you don’t learn how to forgive yourself, you can hold a lot of unprocessed emotions in the body. Long-term stress is known to increase the risk of illnesses and diseases.
Another area that you might not have thought of is relationships. Being able to find self-compassion, forgiving yourself, moving on and letting go of things helps your relationship with you and has a knock-on effect to those connected to you and your relationships with them.
The process of self-forgiveness
Below, we outline the steps involved in the self-forgiveness process:
1. Understand Your Emotions
The self-forgiveness process is one of a few steps. It’s important through each that you come with empathy, kindness, and openness; the way you would with a friend or loved one.
A huge part of therapy work focuses on identifying emotions and processing them. This is a really important part of the healing process and it applies to self-forgiveness which is also a healing behaviour.
While it’s natural to want to avoid experiencing negative feelings, it’s actually important to face and feel them. Doing so helps you to let them go. Emotions inform us of something, in this context, they tell us when something is wrong.
Remember, experiencing guilt shows you’re already feeling regret and remorse. These are key to being able to forgive yourself; an important first step. When you identify the emotion, sit with it, feel it fully, cry or punch a pillow – this processing is key.
2. A note about emotions and self-forgiveness
Three of the most common emotions felt when you’ve made a mistake and need to forgive yourself are regret, guilt, and shame.
Deep regret and guilty feelings tend to be short-lived and linked to the specific behaviour. They’re easier to work with and let go of.
It’s really beneficial to allow these feelings. It’s healthy to feel regret and guilt when you’ve made a mistake or done something you wish you hadn’t. In fact, it’s a positive if you’ve done something “wrong” to experience remorse because it reveals that you’re already in the space to move towards processing and letting go.
Shame is a little more difficult. It’s an emotion with longer-lasting effects and is more internalised. If you’re experiencing this feeling, then try to process it and what might be originally triggering it.
Keep in mind, though, that in some cases where feelings of shame aren’t going seeking professional input is advisable as it could be more deep-rooted.
3. Accept your thought processes
When you do something you regret or make a mistake, it’s easy to beat yourself up. Ruminating, where the same thoughts turn over and over in your mind, can come to the fore. This can happen subconsciously.
It’s helpful to make a conscious choice to accept that you have made a mistake and that’s obviously going to raise particular thoughts and thought patterns. What’s important though is that you do your best to pull yourself away from these.
Being trapped in guilt and remorse can prevent processing and letting go. Accept that negative thoughts might be part of your thinking now, but accepting the mistake and noticing the “I should have done better” thought can actually help you to leave it alone.
4. Be accountable for what you have said or done
For many people, the go-to state after making a mistake is to become defensive, make excuses, or try to justify what’s happened. While it’s important to be aware of what triggered the behaviour, it’s not healthy to defend it.
Being accountable means being able to see that you’ve done something wrong and taking ownership of it. Saying, “I made a mistake; I shouldn’t have lost my temper”. In the case of addiction and substance use, it could very well be, “I’ve relapsed.”
Genuine self-forgiveness comes when you think back to what you did and put it into context. Everyone makes mistakes and some are very much linked to coping mechanisms when faced with a negative experience.
In the case of relapse, for instance, yes you might have slipped up but if you’ve been using alcohol for a long time and have just lost your job, then your old go-to method of coping can sometimes reoccur.
The point is to accept that you’ve slipped up and to concentrate on how to process that feeling now in a healthy way and how to help yourself going forward.
5. Find the lesson in your mistakes
Whenever you do something you regret, or make a mistake, there’s always a lesson to be had, and this is perhaps the “silver lining” to focus on.
To find the lesson reflect on what instigated your behaviour. It’s likely you were triggered. Sometimes this comes from an external trigger, other times internal. Understand what led you to do what you did and then figure out what you can change going forward so that you don’t repeat the same action.
Talk to your inner critic
If, on a daily basis, you’re really beating yourself up, bad emotions can build in your body. Negative self-talk can take hold of your mind and this is incredibly detrimental. Putting yourself down, criticising yourself, and telling yourself you should have known better doesn’t help.
Notice when you are being self-critical and when you spot this, learn to quiet those negative, harmful messages. You might take part in a relaxing and grounding activity such as yoga, walking, or swimming. When you get back “into the body” and away from thoughts it can be soothing.
You might also talk to that part of you that is putting you down. Ask your inner critic questions. The goal of this is to try and understand where this type of self-talk comes from. Usually, when it’s severe, this is linked to things in the past that very much aren’t true in the present.
Apologies and making amends
When you and another person fall out, there are two events that can really help to honour the relationship. Firstly, apologies help. In this moment you face each other with empathy and imagine being in the other’s shoes so that you can make a genuine apology.
This sounds like, “I’m really sorry I hurt you” (rather than “I’m sorry you feel that way”).
Another thing to do is make amends, you put in effort to show that you mean your apology through new, adapted behaviour.
In relation to self-forgiveness, the principle is the same. Apologise to yourself and take action so you don’t repeat the mistake.
Can affirmations help you to forgive yourself?
If you’re struggling to move on or stop ruminating on negative thoughts, then everyday life can become quite wearisome. To help manage this, you can try writing out affirmations and repeating them regularly out loud to yourself.
Affirmations might sound like:
- “I am a good person.”
- “I respect myself and make healthy decisions.”
- “I know how to forgive myself, let go, and move on.”
As you can see, these statements are positive. The point of using affirmations as a tool is that they can help alter your mindset to become more positive, and they also give you a new mantra to interrupt unhealthy rumination.
Be kind to yourself
When you’re working on self-forgiveness, keep in mind that you aren’t a bad person. Good people make mistakes. While you’re managing lots of difficult emotions this can be hard to keep in mind.
Ask yourself, though, how would you talk to a friend in the same position? It’s natural to err. It’s human to feel and important to accept the feelings, forgive, learn, and let go.
Try to increase any positive emotion that comes along. You can also lift your mood by looking after your physical health by exercising, getting good sleep, and taking part in enjoyable activities.
It’s natural that feelings of shame might resurface. Not only can it take time to forgive yourself, but you might have to repeat the process in different situations or if you repeat a mistake a few times.
As you would show patience to someone you care about, it’s important to be patient with yourself too. The more patient you are, the less likely you are to repeat a mistake.
Connect and talk to someone
One of the most important things to do as a human when you’re going through a tough time is to connect with others. Sharing what you’re going through, being heard, and having your experience witnessed makes a huge difference in how you’re able to see the situation.
Speaking to someone you trust and who you’re close to can bring deep validation and empower you to genuinely forgive yourself. Sometimes it’s easier to ground through resonating with another.
Seek professional help
If you’re in a situation where you really can’t let go of something you’ve done or where you keep repeating mistakes and can’t stop, then it’s important to seek help.
A GP, mental health professional, or addiction specialist will help guide you in developing a new frame of reference for your relationship with yourself. Psychotherapy is especially helpful in this area.
Plan for the future
The final step in forgiving yourself is in how you plan and prepare for your actions in the future. If you know that in certain situations or around certain people you’re more likely to make a mistake, then make a stand to avoid them. This is especially essential where people are in recovery from addiction.
If you’re a person who struggles to manage emotions, then take responsibility. Find a counsellor or therapist who can help you face this. If there’s a situation that you aren’t happy with (i.e. at work or with your loved ones), then broach it calmly with the relevant people when you’re both relaxed and speak in a respectful way.
Having plans in place to manage situations and techniques to use to manage yourself makes a huge difference. Life becomes much smoother.
Everyone makes mistakes. Doing so can lead to unpleasant emotions and when this isn’t processed, it can damage both your mental and physical health.
By identifying your emotions, reflecting on your mistakes and taking accountability, you can start moving towards self-forgiveness. If you struggle to do this and go on to experience deep feelings of shame or keep beating yourself up, then it’s important to seek professional help.
The more you practise self-forgiveness, the easier it becomes. Learning to let go, heal, and amend behaviour can greatly improve your relationship with yourself.