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How to Forgive Yourself

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 25, 2021
From the WebMD Archives

Holding on to negative events increases your stress level and generally lowers your enjoyment of life. It results in feeling resentful, angry, and upset. It’s important that you learn to adapt, correct your errors, and grow from negative events. A key component to being able to do this is to be able to forgive yourself for any mistakes or wrongdoings you may have done.

What is Self-Forgiveness Vs. Self-Compassion?

It is easy to mistake self-forgiveness with self-compassion. Self-compassion is different but similar to self-forgiveness. The three hallmarks of self-compassion are:

  • Kindness to yourself. Life is not perfect, so why would people be? When the going gets tough and things do not go to plan, people who practice self-compassion remember this. They acknowledge the inevitability of imperfection and are caring and loving to themselves.
  • Shared humanity. Everyone experiences setbacks in life. Everyone will feel difficult emotions or have to problem solve as unexpected situations arise. Giving yourself compassion means not thinking that you are the only person in the world who experiences these things.
  • Clarity and mindfulness. Having negative emotions can make people feel uncomfortable. Commonly, they will either exaggerate or downplay these emotions. Being able to clearly sit with these emotions and see them for what they are is a sign of self-compassion.

Self-compassion is different than self-forgiveness in that self-forgiveness is a way of reconciling the way you see yourself after you experience guilt, shame, and disappointment. These feelings happen when you do something that makes you question the image you have of yourself. Therefore, it is a facet of self-compassion.

Strategies for Self-Forgiveness

You may at times do something that challenges your own self-perception. And it can be hard to reconcile with yourself when you do something that negatively affects you or others. Here are some tips for how to internally practice self-forgiveness:

  • Think back. Think back to a time in your life when you felt safe and cared about someone. Remember who that is — it could be a friend, relative, teacher, mentor, spiritual figure, or a pet. Visualize the feeling of being around them and being protected. Let yourself feel safe. Then, together with your protector, list all of your positive qualities.
  • Remember the event. Next, acknowledge the facts surrounding what you need to forgive yourself for. Remember back to the specific event and how it made you feel. Notice what is hard to face. Make a list of what happened and sort it all into three different categories: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults call for guilt or remorse, and unskillfulness requires correction like committing to never doing a certain act again.
  • Don’t avoid guilt. Not feeling great about doing something bad is healthy and natural. If we wipe away the bad feelings of doing bad, what are we left with? However, there is a difference between shame and guilt. Shame comes with defensive feelings like denial, avoidance, and violence. It is not helpful to tell yourself that you are a bad person at your core and feel guilty. By doing so, you may not think that you can change. Feeling guilt over your actions, however, can help you not repeat them.
  • Take responsibility. You cannot forgive yourself if you don’t own up to what you did both to yourself and to the person you have wronged. Let them know that you take accountability for what you did and let yourself know this too. Learn to fully accept that you did whatever you did.
  • Try to repair the damage. It may be hard for you to truly forgive yourself if you feel you haven’t done what you need to do to make amends. Perhaps this means offering financial aid, repairing the property, or simply saying sorry to someone.
  • Have empathy for more than yourself. It has been found that people have trouble with self-forgiveness when they also have empathy with the other party involved. It’s normal for people to struggle with this tension. However, without having empathy for both yourself and the other person, this self-forgiveness can be empty and not mean much.

These tips are difficult to incorporate, but so is having true self-forgiveness. It will most likely be a long journey that will have valleys and peaks. You may never fully release the negative feelings you have. Self-forgiveness doesn’t need to be a self-indulgent thing but rather a clear appraisal of your capacity for doing bad and good.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES: 

American Psychological Association: “Don’t cry over spilled milk-The research on why it’s important to give yourself a break.”

Greater Good Magazine: “The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself,” "Just One Thing: Forgive Yourself.”

Stanford Medicine: “The benefits of self-forgiveness.”

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