Guilt Is A Heavy Burden to Bear — Here's How To Forgive Yourself & Move Forward
If nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes, why is it such a challenge to offer the same grace to ourselves as we do others?
So, how do you forgive yourself, exactly? We asked mental health experts—here's what they had to say.
What really is self-forgiveness?
According to a 2018 study2 published in the journal PLOS One, researchers define self-forgiveness as "a positive attitudinal shift in the feelings, actions, and beliefs about the self, following a self-perceived transgression or wrongdoing committed by the self." They also note that forgiving yourself can help "restore a positive sense of the self and safeguard [your] overall well-being against the toxic effects of guilt, shame and regret."
The antithesis of self-forgiveness, meanwhile, usually involves denial and/or berating yourself, according to therapist and relationship expert Ken Page, LCSW. As he tells mindbodygreen, "There's this constant tendency to think we have to be perfect. It's a self-protective mechanism, because when we're not perfect, there are consequences, and that's a scary thing."
When you foster your ability to recognize and accept your imperfection, however, "that is literally one of the greatest skills of life," Page says, adding, "And a side benefit of that is when we learn to do it for ourselves, we learn how to forgive other people, too."
Ultimately, as licensed marriage and family therapist Jessi Leader, LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen, forgiving yourself comes down to getting curious and exploring why whatever happened, happened—and further, processing the feelings associated with the hurt.
Self-forgiveness, she says, isn't so much about letting go but rather "having a better relationship with this part of you."
10 steps to forgive yourself:
Reframe the way you think about your mistakes.
The first step toward self-forgiveness is shifting the way you think about your mistakes. Namely, Page says, we tend to think of things in terms of polarities—like success versus failure, or strength versus weakness—when they can actually exist together.
"So it's figuring out, How can I create hope out of pain? How can I create evolution out of what feels like a failure? It's like a living, swirling matrix of woundedness, brokenness, beauty, potential, and strength, so we need to actually shift our whole paradigm to move away from that polarity into a richer understanding," Page explains.
Stop "shoulding" on yourself.
As aforementioned, one common way we resist forgiving ourselves is by berating ourselves, and "shoulding" on yourself is one of the big ways this manifests. But your inner critic, licensed behavioral counselor Cindy Saleeby Goulding, M.S., LPC, previously wrote for mindbodygreen, is one of the biggest hurdles of self-forgiveness.
"Focusing on the I should do this or I should have done that sets you up for being self-critical. When you 'should' on yourself, you are judging yourself," she explains, adding, "When you judge yourself, you are limiting all of your potential to grow and think openly."
Instead of judging, she says, we can learn from our past and use those experiences as tools for change. "Instead of getting caught up in the 'shoulds,' think of ways that you can learn to adjust your way of thinking," Saleeby Goulding says.
Take responsibility for your actions.
As you start to reframe the way you think about your mistakes or regrets, you can work with "the four R's of forgiveness," with the first one being responsibility. In order to move on and forgive yourself, you must accept responsibility for your part in whatever happened.
"It is a scary and hard thing to do," Page says, "but it is a daily act of heroism to actually take responsibility and say, 'This happened and this is the way I was a part of it.'"
Of course, taking responsibility then opens you up to feelings of guilt, remorse, and regret, which brings us to our next point.
Don't deny your remorse or regret.
The second R of the "4 R's of forgiveness" is remorse. Once you've taken responsibility for your role in the situation you're in, remorse is a natural recourse to move toward integrating the situation in a healthy way. "This is how we build the muscle, the strength, and the resilience of our humanity—by actually letting ourselves feel the pain, the remorse, the hurt," Page explains.
And as somatic psychologist and licensed marriage and family therapist Holly Richmond, Ph.D., LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen, stepping away from the past is often more of a process of moving through rather than letting go. "We can't just let go and forget but rather we often need to sit with the feelings, process them, and move through them to states where we feel more calm, centered, and empowered rather than feeling triggered by a past event."
While you will get triggered and want to turn away from your remorse, self-forgiveness involves embracing it. "There's a tremendous gift that happens when we allow the pain to move through us," Page says, "because then it can resolve, integrate, and pass—and letting ourselves feel that pain dramatically reduced the chances it will happen again."
Make an effort to rectify wrongdoings.
Once you've started reframing your relationship with the part of you that you want to forgive—acknowledging your role in it, along with the accompanying feelings of remorse—then comes restoration (the third "R").
This is your apologizing, your making amends, your asking for forgiveness—but also backing up your remorse with a change in behavior. As Page notes, part of forgiving yourself may involve righting your wrongs with others, but even if the forgiveness you require has nothing to do with anyone else, your relationship with yourself still needs restoration, too.
"This is a really important step because what you are doing is shifting the narrative from a terminal, broken place to a place of evolution. If you just leave it as it is, it remains that way and has to be lived with. If there's an evolution of change, then it's a story of redemption," Page tells mindbodygreen.
While it's not always easy to apologize to yourself (or others), psychology expert Megan Hale, M.A., previously wrote for mindbodygreen that the reason most of us feel guilt or shame for our past actions is because those actions were not in line with our current morals and values. "In this way," she says, "our previous wrongdoings can actually clue us in to what we now hold important"—and that is something to learn from.
Find the lesson.
The final "R" of the 4 R's of forgiveness is renewal. With renewal, you begin to grow from the experience having learned a valuable lesson about the kind of person you want to be going forward.
According to self-compassion expert Kristin Neff, Ph.D., renewal is about understanding what led to your mistake and making a conscious effort to prevent it from happening in the future.
"Take a moment to consider whether any environmental factors were affecting you at the time. For instance, were you under a lot of stress? Or were certain aspects of your personality triggered in an irrational way—old buttons pushed?" she says, adding to look beyond yourself and your personal interpretation of this situation.
Sometimes, she says, you may find that you didn't actually make a mistake at all and were just trying to live your life the best way you knew how at the time. Now that you know differently, you can act differently.
Tune in to your higher self.
We all have access to innate wisdom within us, whether you want to call it your "higher self" or your conscience. In Page's case, he refers to it as your "inner mentor," which you can connect with at any time.
Oftentimes, we already have the answers or solutions we're seeking within us and just need to unlock them. By intentionally getting in touch with the best parts of yourself—the "you" that you want to be—Page says, you're able to bypass your inner critic, access your deeper wisdom, and hold yourself with the compassion of that wisdom and deeper understanding.
Practice visualizations or affirmations for self-compassion.
Various practices like affirmations and visualizations can be powerful tools to lean on when you're struggling to forgive yourself, with affirmations being as simple as repeating, "I forgive myself for my past," or "The rest of my life begins today," to help reframe negative thought loops.
For a visualization practice, here's what Page recommends:
- Picture the essence of your humanity, including the mistake you're trying to forgive, as a ball of light (or anything that resonates, like a butterfly or flower, for example).
- Now, imagine you're holding your humanity in your hands, but your hands are flat and cold, not holding yourself with compassion. Notice how it feels to hold yourself in this way, identifying feelings that arise such as disdain, self-loathing, or bitterness.
- Next, imagine you're squeezing your humanity in your hands, trying to control or contain it. Notice the feelings that come up here, like resistance, regret, or pressure.
- Finally, take your hands and cup them like you were holding something very delicate. Feel the essence of your humanity supported by your cupped hands, holding yourself lovingly without the need to avoid, resist, or control. Take your time as you start to experience the felt sensation of love, tenderness, and compassion toward yourself.
Page notes that with this visualization, we prime our system to start viewing ourselves with more grace. "When we can learn to hold our mistakes with cupped hands, that's the state we want to be in," he adds.
Let go of the past.
Letting go of the past is no easy feat, especially when you're trying to forgive yourself. But one of the most important things to remember when it comes to forgiveness is that, point blank, the past is in the past. While you may not be able to undo what was done, you can control your story from here on out.
As Richmond previously told mindbodygreen, when we can separate a past experience from our current reality, we tend to be able to more solidly move into future possibility and hopefulness.
Be sure to check out our full guide on how to let go of the past for more information.
Seek guidance from a mental health professional.
Last but not least, no one should suffer alone, and if you're struggling to forgive yourself and move through whatever it is that's weighing on you, it would be worthwhile to seek the help of a professional, such as a therapist, spiritual coach, or mentor.
Because while yes, self-forgiveness is an inside job, there are countless resources and trained professionals whose purpose is to give you the tools you need to move forward in your life—and taking the step to get help is taking one step closer to self-forgiveness.
How do I let go of guilt and forgive myself?
In order to let go of guilt and forgive yourself, it's a balancing act of taking responsibility, righting your wrongs, and changing your behavior going forward. Forgiving yourself also involves a degree of grace and self-compassion, accepting that nobody is perfect, including you.
How do I forgive myself for my past mistakes?
To forgive yourself for your past mistakes, acknowledge that nobody is perfect and the past is in the past. All you can control now is what you do going forward, and guilt can actually be a guiding light that points you in the right direction of your moral compass.
What are the 4 R's of forgiveness?
The 4 R's of forgiveness are: Responsibility (taking responsibility for your actions), Remorse (using negative feelings like guilt to help guide you going forward), Restoration (repairing or rectifying any damage you can, including with yourself), and Renewal (closing out self-forgiveness through changed behavior and personal growth).
Why do I feel like I can't forgive myself?
It is very difficult to forgive yourself because it involves integrating your wrongdoings into the larger story of who you are, which can cause cognitive dissonance. No one wants to believe they are a bad person, but the key is realizing that your mistakes do not define you, and forgiving yourself does not mean you're a bad person.
Forgiving yourself is ultimately a tremendous act of bravery, grace, and self-compassion, but that doesn't mean it will come easy. The more we're able to hold feelings of guilt and regret with loving kindness toward ourselves, the better we'll be able to grow, evolve, and prevent repeating the same mistakes in the future.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.