How to Forgive Yourself
Forgiveness is often defined as letting go of feelings of resentment, anger, or bitterness toward someone who has wronged you. Forgiving others can be tough. But we all can forgive. While you may be able to forgive others, how are you at forgiving yourself for mistakes you’ve made or wrongs you’ve committed?
Forgiving yourself requires empathy, compassion, kindness, and understanding. We all make mistakes. However, there is power in acknowledging, learning from, and moving beyond our mistakes.
Why should I forgive myself?
Forgiving yourself is a big deal for your own personal growth. When you forgive yourself, you improve your self-image. Studies have shown that those who practice self-forgiveness experience lower levels of depression and anxiety, too.
Forgiving also impacts your physical health. Research shows that forgiveness can reduce blood pressure and improve heart health.
How do I forgive myself?
Dr. Marilyn Cornish proposed a four-step approach to self-forgiveness, suggesting key actions that can be helpful:
Kendra Cherry, MS, offers further insight on Cornish’s approach to forgiving yourself. Here’s a summary of her work.
Some say you just have to forgive and forget, but Cherry says it’s about more than forgetting the past and moving on. The keys are to accept what happened and show compassion to yourself. It may be the hardest step in self-forgiveness, but acknowledging and accepting what you’ve done is a huge step forward. It’s rarely easy for anyone to look in the mirror and see their own mistakes.
Even after you accept responsibility, you may be overcome with negative feelings like guilt and shame. Believe it or not, it’s normal and healthy to feel guilty when you’ve wronged someone. Cherry says that feeling guilty lets you know you’re a good person who has made a mistake or wronged someone, so it can lead to positive change.
On the other hand, shame makes you feel like your whole self is wrong. Left unchecked, shame and feelings of worthlessness can lead to addiction, depression, or aggression.
Mistakes are just those: mistakes. Remember that your mistakes don’t define you or make you a bad person.
Apologize and Restore Trust
Apologizing and repairing damage is vital to forgiveness. Cherry says this is just as important when you are forgiving yourself. Apologizing shows that you recognize the mistake and feel bad for what you’ve done. Offering an apology to someone you’ve wronged allows you to start rebuilding trust with them. It also enables you to work through the guilt and restore confidence in yourself.
Focus on Renewal
Cherry acknowledges that we all make mistakes and have some regrets, but she notes that it isn’t helpful to focus on those things. In fact, an unhealthy focus can damage your self-esteem and self-worth. Self-forgiveness allows you to move beyond your mistakes and grow.
One of my favorite movie lines is from Batman Begins. Alfred looks at Bruce Wayne and, quoting Bruce’s father, says, “Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Making mistakes is a normal part of life. We’re all guilty of it, but what matters is that we learn from our mistakes and move forward.
A little side note on self-forgiveness…
Self-forgiveness is important when reflecting on your mistakes and ways you’ve wronged others. However, people who have suffered abuse, trauma, or loss may also feel shame and guilt even though they could not control what happened to them. Hear me say this: You are not responsible for forgiving yourself for what someone else did to you. If you need help, a counselor can help you walk through processing the guilt, shame, and pain you’ve experienced.
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To learn more about self-forgiveness, check out these resources:
What Is Self-Forgiveness and Why Is It Important To Your Mental Health?
Taking the Steps to Forgive Yourself
Sarah J. Peterson, Daryl R. Van Tongeren, Stephanie D. Womack, Joshua N. Hook, Don E. Davis & Brandon J. Griffin (2017) The benefits of self-forgiveness on mental health: Evidence from correlational and experimental research, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 12:2, 159-168.
Marillyn A. Cornish, Nathaniel G. Wade (2015) A Therapeutic Model of Self-Forgiveness With Intervention Strategies for Counselors, Journal of Counseling and Development, 93:1, 96-104.
Kyler R. Rasmussen, Madelynn Stackhouse, Susan D. Boon, Karly Comstock & Rachel Ross (2019) Meta-analytic connections between forgiveness and health: the moderating effects of forgiveness-related distinctions, Psychology & Health, 34:5, 515-534.
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