Forgiveness can be hard. When someone does something that hurts you, it can be difficult to let it go and move on. Although forgiving others can be a daunting task at times, it is often much easier to forgive others than it is to forgive yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Maybe you missed your daughter’s winning goal because you left work late, told a lie that caused problems for others, or perhaps your actions resulted in life-altering consequences. No matter what happened, practicing self-forgiveness provides an opportunity for important growth, meaningful change, and improved emotional well-being. Below are 7 tips for practicing self-forgiveness.

Why You Should Forgive Yourself

Fixating on difficult emotions, such as guilt, anger, and shame, can have negative consequences on your mental and physical health. Ruminating on these feelings keeps your nervous system on high alert. The adrenaline release related to these emotions can lead to heart problems, autoimmune diseases, and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression. Beating yourself up over and over again strengthens the feelings of guilt and shame and reinforces the accompanying self-belief of being a bad person. Staying stuck in the past prevents you from moving forward and learning valuable lessons. Self-forgiveness enables you to separate who you are, from the mistakes you have made. This way you can begin to learn from your choices and find ways to make amends when possible. It will be easier to truly forgive others when you start forgiving yourself. Forgiveness is a process that takes time. Below are some tips to get you started on your journey towards self-forgiveness.

1. Define Forgiveness

Having a clear definition of forgiveness, and what it means to you, is an important first step. Your definition could stem from your religious beliefs, family, or personal ideas. When you define what forgiveness is, make sure you are also clear on what it is not. If you believe that forgiveness releases you from responsibility, or means that you are not at fault, it will feel like you are letting yourself off the hook. Understanding forgiveness as forgetting, or moving on as if nothing happened will keep you stuck in shame or denial. This is why it is important to have a clear definition of forgiveness. Perhaps forgiveness can be defined as a decision to acknowledge that you are flawed and made poor choices that have caused harm. But instead of continuing to punish yourself and wallow in shame, you are choosing to treat yourself with compassion and understanding so you can learn from this experience, accept responsibility for your actions, and grow in ways that will encourage effective change.

2. Acknowledge Your Feelings

In order to forgive yourself, you need to acknowledge your feelings, not deny them. Set aside time to focus on your feelings without judgment. Name your emotions and allow yourself to experience what you feel. You can feel anything you need to feel and these feelings don’t have to define your responses. This might be difficult, but you will not be able to let go of your feelings of guilt and shame until you acknowledge them, feel them, and allow yourself to work through them. It is normal to experience remorse when you have caused pain for someone else. Acknowledging these feelings enables you to gain a deeper understanding of what occurred. Ignoring your emotions can lead to more regret, which can make self-forgiveness very difficult.

3. Acknowledge What You Did

You can’t really learn from your mistakes unless you are able to acknowledge them. Acknowledging what happened and taking responsibility for your part in it allows you to gain insight into why it happened. Put judgment aside and look at what actually occurred and your role in the situation. When you learn the lessons related to what you did, you can also take steps to avoid doing it again. Living in denial keeps you from owning up to your mistakes and learning from them. Likewise, replaying the incident over and over again keeps the focus on what went wrong, instead of on what you learned. If you can acknowledge what behaviors and actions lead to the problem, you can take the steps necessary to make effective changes.

4. Apologize

If your actions caused someone else harm, apologize. A heartfelt apology to someone you have hurt can go a long way towards self-forgiveness. It will probably be difficult to truly forgive yourself if you still feel as though you need to make amends with someone else. While you can’t anticipate how your apology will be received, saying sorry to the injured party can help you let it go sooner and find forgiveness for yourself. If you hurt someone else and are unable to apologize to them, writing down what you would like to say can keep you from ruminating on it. You can write out an apology to yourself as well. For an apology to seem sincere, you need to admit what you did wrong, explain why you regret it, acknowledge the pain you have caused, and describe what you plan to do differently in the future to ensure it is unlikely to happen again.

5. Focus On What You Learned

It is much easier to learn important lessons when things go wrong, then when they go right. If you can focus on the learning experience and what you will do differently going forward, you may find self-forgiveness more appropriate. When you know what you did and the consequences, you can make a different choice going forward. Sometimes this type of lesson is learned most effectively when you mess up. It is normal to get caught up in what you did wrong, but you may not learn much from this if it is your only focus. By focusing on what adjustments you need to make going forward, you can grow from the experience. When you can view it as a hard lesson learned, you may be able to start forgiving yourself.

6. Make Meaningful Changes

In order to forgive yourself, you may need to make some changes. Acknowledging that your actions caused a problem is only the first step. You also need to change your behavior. If you continue the problematic behavior, you are not taking responsibility for what you did. Only changing the behavior can lead to the possibility of a better outcome. For example, if you are continuously late for work and feel bad about this, you can change this by leaving your house earlier. If making a behavioral change won’t help the situation, you can make a meaningful change in a different way. You could volunteer, share your story with others, or work to devise a future solution. Paying it forward is a good way to shift your focus from what you did wrong to what you are doing about it.

7. Practice Compassion

Just as you show compassion for others, you can show compassion for yourself. Continuously beating yourself up about something that has already happened and can’t be undone reinforces the negative. This can lead to a troubling self-perception that you are a damaged person who is not worthy of grace. Instead, you can treat yourself with kindness and acceptance. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend. Recognize that making a mistake does not make you a mistake. Even though you are probably harder on yourself than you are on anyone else, the way you treat yourself is a choice. Choosing to treat yourself with compassion and understanding can help you practice forgiveness for both others, and yourself.

While forgiving yourself may not be easy, it is very important to your emotional health. If you are struggling with forgiving yourself for past mistakes, individual counseling can help. Remember, you do not have to forget what happened to forgive yourself. When you are able to forgive yourself, you can experience important growth and change that can improve your overall well-being. 

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