From time to time, we’re all faced with the need to forgive ourselves. Maybe you’re beating yourself up for a mistake you made at work that cost the company a ton of money. Or maybe the memory of haunting decisions you made when you were a teenager still wakes you up in the middle of the night. Or maybe you’re full of regret for something you didn’t do—an opportunity you missed or a road you chose not to take.
Whatever weight you’re carrying, it’s getting heavy, isn’t it?
Choosing not to forgive yourself is like being the judge, jury and defendant of your life all at once. We put ourselves on trial on an almost daily basis and write our own sentence of condemnation. Most of us talk to ourselves in ways that we would never let someone talk to our kids or our neighbors. But we have no problem condemning ourselves. The good news about self-forgiveness is that you can choose to slam down the gavel, dismiss the court, and let yourself off the stand.
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The bad news is that it’s hard work to face your demons, learn how to forgive yourself, and form a new identity. My hope is that today becomes a turning point for you—that you refuse to let your past mistakes define you.
Before we walk through the steps on how to forgive yourself, let’s get on the same page as to why self-forgiveness is important.
Why Is Self-Forgiveness Important?
Self-forgiveness is absolutely essential to living a full, meaningful and authentic life. Here are a few arguments in favor of self-forgiveness:
- You are worthy of love, period. With all your blunders and imperfections and bad choices, you’re a human being who deserves honor and dignity. To be human is to be messy and mistake ridden—we’re all in the same boat. You are more than the worst thing you’ve ever done. Own it and be vulnerable.
- If you don’t show yourself compassion, you can’t show others compassion. Self-forgiveness is a matter of integrity because it allows you to treat yourself the way you should treat others.
- Unforgiveness prevents you from living in the present and expecting good things in the future. When you condemn yourself, you’re choosing to let past decisions define your identity. You’re choosing to walk through life with weight on your back. You’re like that bug in Jurassic Park that they found crystallized in amber: frozen in time. That one bad decision has captured the essence of who you are. You must put down the regrets and disappointments of your past in order to live fully in the present and to believe that you’re worthy of good things down the road.
How to Forgive Yourself
Whether it’s big or small, something you did 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago, self-forgiveness is a skill and a habit that everyone needs to learn in order to truly connect with yourself and live an authentic life. Here are a few practices you can use as you learn to forgive yourself.
Recognize the cost of unforgiveness.
Choosing not to forgive yourself will cost your identity and your capacity to give and receive love. Unforgiveness will weigh you down.
Let me explain this with a word picture. Imagine that each one of us is walking through life with a backpack full of metaphorical rocks and bricks of past traumas, past choices and current challenges. Some of the rocks and bricks were put there by others, some were put there by the systems and cultures we were raised in, and some were put there by us. Unforgiveness is like a collection of bricks we’re lugging around all day, every day. Did you yell at your kid after a stressful day at work? That’s a brick. Are you burning with shame because a friend found out you gossiped about her? Another brick.
Pretty soon, you’re scratching and clawing just to get through the day with all of this extra weight on your shoulders. You can choose to keep carrying the bricks. But as you take one weary step after another, you’ll sink lower and lower into a black pit of bitterness. And bitterness is a poison that limits your capacity to give and receive love. It’s nonsense to wallow in bitterness—you’re only hurting yourself.
To sum this all up: Self-forgiveness is the process of removing the bricks you’ve put in your own “backpack,” examining them, learning from them, and then laying them down. And choosing not to forgive yourself comes at a high cost.
List your hurts.
If you want to forgive yourself, you’ve got to start by identifying the specific hurts—regrets, mistakes and decisions—that you’re carrying around. Using our backpack analogy, I want you to pull out the bricks and do an inventory of the areas in life where you need self-forgiveness.
- Name the hurt. Be specific about the actions and words that fill you with regret. I want you to literally write these things out, by hand, on paper.
- Take ownership for the things you need to forgive yourself for.
- Keep in mind that you might need to forgive yourself for something you failed to do. Thoughts like I should have gone back to school and I should have moved when I had the chance are indicators that you’re holding on to regret.
- Understand that your hurt can stem from big life events as well as subtle, daily choices. Don’t dismiss the small things. Maybe you’re unwilling to forgive yourself for a pattern of behavior that has held you back for years.
- Once you’ve written your list out, take a step back. How does it feel to acknowledge these mistakes? Are you scared? Ready to work? Enlightened?
Keep your list handy as we work through the rest of the steps.
Decide to forgive yourself.
Once you’ve identified your bricks of unforgiveness, you get to make a choice: Will you keep carrying them with you through life, or will you choose to set them down?
We have much more power over our thoughts and actions than we realize. If you’re stuck in a twisted web of shame and resentment, you’re not going to just wake up one day and feel like forgiving yourself. Trust me. This thing will eat you up from the inside out until you decide to forgive yourself.
It might feel super cheesy, but when you’re ready to begin the work, I want you to say these words out loud: “I forgive myself for ______.” Use that language in your conversations with others. Talk about your choice. Own up to it.
Own and grieve the consequences.
Self-forgiveness doesn’t mean you’re turning a blind eye to the consequences of your decisions. Let’s say you embezzled money, got caught, were fired, and lost a career trajectory that you may never get back. That sucks. Let yourself be sad and heartbroken about what you’ve lost. Accept the fact that you can’t change the past instead of obsessing over the “what ifs.” Don’t excuse or make light of your behavior. It is what it is.
When it comes to grief, I want you to sit in it, but don’t bathe in it. At some point, you have to decide it’s time to move on. And this isn’t a time for you to heap judgement on yourself. It’s a time to grieve, not condemn.
Make peace with others.
It’s highly likely that when you hurt yourself, you hurt others too. As you forgive yourself, you’ll probably be moved to forgive someone else or ask for forgiveness from someone you hurt. This is scary, but it’s good. I’m a relentless optimist. I believe that restoration, hope and healing are always possible. And by choosing to be brave and take the first step, you could change someone’s entire future and restore your relationship.
If you need to call someone and ask them for forgiveness, do it. Or make financial restitution. Or acknowledge the pain you caused your team, your family or your company. Not all pleas for mercy end in hugs, forgiveness or happy endings. But they do allow you to honestly own how you hurt someone, lean into restoration and justice, and set the bricks down.
Treat yourself like someone you love.
As you examine your bricks of unforgiveness, I want you to have an outrageous amount of compassion for yourself. Even if you’ve done something horrible, I want you to talk to yourself like you’d talk to someone you care about. Maybe you regret something you did as a child. Why should you hold yourself to the standard of an adult? When you messed up back then, you were only doing what you knew how to do.
Be kind. Be accepting. Be patient. Show yourself generous mercy and grace. Try to understand your own motives and your point of view, but do so without judgement.
Learn from your mistakes.
Forgiveness isn’t a magic eraser for the damage you’ve done to yourself or to others. If you want to break the cycle of hurt, you need to learn from your past thoughts, words and actions.
If you’re feeling weighed down by unforgiveness and you don’t even know where to start, pick up your phone right now (or as soon as you finish reading this article) and make an appointment with a mental health professional. Talking through past failures or patterns that you want to change is a super important step toward creating new patterns for the future.
Make a deliberate choice to not dwell on your past mistakes.
I still remember many times when I’ve said things that hurt other people. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been mean and cruel. When I’m feeling tired, run down, anxious or discouraged, my brain will still bring up some of those names and faces of people I’ve hurt and some of the words I’ve said. I have to make a conscious choice to not wallow in self-condemnation. I literally say out loud, “Nope!” when the thoughts flash into my head (thankfully, my wife is used to it by now).
Be on the alert when these thoughts, memories and feelings of shame resurface. Exercise your mind like you would any other muscle and choose not to ruminate (a fancy psychological word for “think about something over and over”).
Reject toxic shame.
I want to distinguish between a few important nerdy psychology terms here. When we do something that violates our own moral compass, we experience guilt. Guilt is an unpleasant emotion, but it’s not a bad emotion. It’s actually a sign that you’re emotionally healthy. You should feel bad for mistreating your spouse or spreading lies about a friend out of jealousy. If you don’t, you’ve got some bigger problems to worry about.
Guilt prompts us to seek forgiveness because we recognize that we’ve done something wrong. So, when you feel that you’ve violated your own conscience, take that opportunity to make peace with yourself through forgiveness.
Shame takes it a step further, though. This is when you assume that the wrong you’ve done as part of your identity. Instead of thinking, I feel guilty for lying to my boss, you tell yourself, I am a horrible employee and a liar. We experience shame when we weave our bad decisions into our identity. Guilt helps us realize, “I made a mistake,” but shame whispers the lie, “I am a mistake.”
Guilt is picking up a brick for a season when you hurt someone. Shame is when you put the brick into your backpack and convince yourself that this is who you are—forever.
Yes, you messed up. Yes, it was wrong. But you are not the worst thing you have done. Embrace guilt and learn from it, but don’t allow your shame to become your identity.
Talk to someone you trust.
There’s something powerful and healing about being vulnerable with people you trust. It shuts the fear off. It helps you face your mistakes and then move on to the next thing. A cornerstone of my Christian faith (and many other faiths) is the act of confession and vulnerability—choosing to lean into the scary unknown of other people’s hearts and let them know what you’ve done.
But opening up and sharing about your deep regret is scary. It’s a risk.
If you choose the right people, you might discover that opening up about the regret you’re carrying is one of the best choices you could ever make. Every single person on this planet needs community, friendship, accountability, a set of actions, and a way to cope with our fear and shame. Dr. Brené Brown says that shame needs three things to grow: secrecy, silence and judgement. You can destroy shame by bringing it into the light.
When should you go to a professional counselor or trustworthy pastor to get help with unforgiveness? Probably sooner than you think. A counselor will teach you skills and help you learn how to be in community with other people. If you’re feeling buried by the task of self-forgiveness, reach out—today—and get help.
Plan for who you want to become.
As you look around and see bricks scattered all around you, I want you to fix your eyes on the path ahead. Where do you go from here? Once you let go of your past mistakes and failures, it’s time to start assuming a new identity. My hope is that you become a person who treats others with outrageous kindness and compassion—starting with yourself.
Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Actions, Change Your Life
Choosing self-forgiveness is a courageous act of transformation. It won’t be easy—but you are worth it. We’re all in the process of becoming well and whole, and this work is done best in community. We need each other.
The longer we carry the bricks of our past mistakes and failures, the more prone we are to the ravaging effects of anxiety—it’s one of the unintended side effects of unforgiveness. I wrote a Quick Read to help address the four most common myths we believe about anxiety, and what you can do to help get your life back. If you or someone you love struggles with anxiety, get a copy of Redefining Anxiety today!