Have you ever wondered why it is easier to forgive others than it is to forgive yourself? Unfortunately, there is no trick to learning to forgive oneself–it just takes time and patience. Even when we have learned how to offer forgiveness to others, forgiving ourselves is a difficult, yet crucial step we all must work through.
Forgiveness is a process that takes time. It does not happen overnight and may require varying amounts of time and steps for each individual. Regardless of how long it takes or how arduous the process is, I can assure you that it is worth it. Let’s start at square one. What does forgiveness mean? To forgive is to cease to feel resentment against and/or to grant pardon to an individual–including yourself. Forgiveness has many benefits including healthier relationships (with others as well as yourself); improved mental health; less anxiety, stress and hostility; lower blood pressure; fewer symptoms of depression; a stronger immune system; improved heart health; and improved self-esteem. Not to mention how liberating it is to free yourself from guilt, resentment, and pain. Nothing but good comes from extending forgiveness!
I think we all know these things when it comes to forgiving others. But forgiving ourselves is a completely different story. Publilius Syrus once said, “How unhappy is he who cannot forgive himself.” I am sure many of you have experienced this yourselves; I have seen several clients stuck on this important phase of forgiveness, and it truly does take a great toll on their happiness.
Why is it so hard to forgive ourselves? When we have done something “wrong,” we register it in our nervous system. We hold on to it. We do not forget it. Did you cheat on your spouse? Hit a child in anger? Steal something? The list of potential human misdeeds is long. But then we start to associate definitive statements with our past mistakes. “I’m always saying the wrong things,” “I’ll never be able to cover my bills,” or “I’m a horrible parent.” This perpetuates into a negative cycle of self deprecation and self-loathing. It may seem obvious, but this process does not lead to growth or happiness. Along with forgiving yourself for whatever action or misdeed you may have committed, it is imperative to release those limiting beliefs as well.
Sharon A. Hartman, LSW, a clinical trainer at a drug and alcohol treatment center in Pennsylvania, works with clients struggling with forgiveness every day. She says that forgiving oneself is possibly the most difficult part of recovery. Countless studies show stress and anger can cause or worsen diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, and various autoimmune disorders. “When resentment is interfering with your life, it’s time to forgive yourself.”
Just as it is helpful to break up the steps of forgiving others, forgiving oneself can also be separated into more manageable steps, as follows:
- Accept what happened. Move away from excuses and accept responsibility for what you did. Do not justify yourself or blame others that may have affected you. This is a difficult but necessary step.
- Establish your morals. We feel guilt or shame for actions done in the past because we were likely not acting in line with our current morals and values. This can be helpful in cluing us in to what we hold important and how we want to live. Consider your mistake an opportunity to define how you will (or will not) act in the future.
- Realize you did the best you could at the time. Hindsight is 20/20, so it is easy to critically evaluate past actions. But if you remind yourself that you were simply doing the best you could with what you had at the time, it will help alleviate some of the guilt and frustration you have towards yourself. (A warning: Earnestly evaluate whether or not your expectations are unrealistic or not. Refer to step number six about how perfection is impossible.)
- Consider creating a “re-do.” Sometimes I advise my clients to write down how they wish they could have responded or reacted in the moment. This gives them an opportunity to react to past events with their current morals/values, or perception. Simply write down how you would have done things differently if you could go back and do it again. In doing so, you will affirm that you not only learned from your past mistake, but that if you had the skills back then that you have now, you would have done things differently.
- Turn the page. The time will come, however, where you must accept that the past has happened and you have tried to amend past mistakes. No amount of re-do’s will change this. So turn the page and accept those events as part of your story. Without past mistakes and experiences, you would not be who you are. In a way, you can be grateful those experiences have allowed you to move on and truly forgive yourself.
- Cut yourself some slack. This is like learning to ride a bike. You were not perfect the first time (or even the tenth time) you tried. It took falling off, scraping your knees, feeling frustrated, and bumping up against curbs to learn how to ride. New behavior and thinking patterns are no different. Cut yourself some slack while you are experiencing a learning curve. Be patient with yourself. Remember that mistakes are part of the learning process. You are going to make mistakes. We all do.
- Move toward self-love. Think kind thoughts about yourself and show yourself some respect and compassion. Talk to yourself like you would your best friend. If we can speak to ourselves with love and kindness, and put ourselves as a priority, it reaffirms that we believe we are worth it. Recognize your strengths. Give yourself compliments. Surround yourself with supportive people.
- Appreciate progress. Recognize the steps you have taken in the right direction. The fact that you are trying to completely forgive yourself shows that you care about growth and integrity. Recognize when you make changes that move you to act and live more in line with your morals and values, and be proud of yourself for the progress you are making.
Sharon Hartman said, “We all screw up sometimes. Forgiving ourselves is as close as we come to a system reset button.” Holding on to guilt and shame because of past offenses can stunt your growth, relationships, and happiness. Forgiveness is crucial–especially forgiveness of the self. Because we know ourselves better than anyone else, we know our own weaknesses and faults, and it is easy to withhold that forgiveness. But I can assure you that extending that compassionate forgiveness to yourself will unlock doors of happiness and progression you have not been able to access previously. Remember that forgiveness is a process and requires time. It is different for everyone. If you have worked through all of these steps and you are still struggling to move on from past omissions, I highly recommend talking to a therapist. Please click here to contact me with any questions you may have, or feel free to schedule a session at your earliest convenience.
Melissa Cluff is a licensed marriage and family therapist based in Lewisville, Texas, personally seeing clients in the North Dallas area.
- Huffington Post: “Here’s How To Learn To Forgive Yourself After A Mistake”
- MayoClinic: “Forgiveness: Letting go of grudges and bitterness”
- Mind Body Green: “10 Ways To Forgive Yourself & Let Go Of The Past”
- Prevention: “12 Ways To Forgive Yourself—No Matter What You’ve Done”
- Psychology Today: “How to Forgive Yourself and Move on From the Past”
- WebMD: “Learning to Forgive Yourself”