You made a mistake. You made a bad decision. You hurt someone. You failed a test. You didn’t complete all your tasks for the day. You woke up late. You forgot to pay a bill. You didn’t meet an expectation — or even come close.
You didn’t get your point across during an important meeting or presentation. You missed an important appointment. You missed a loved one’s birthday. You were so awkward at that big party. Your anxiety just would not subside.
For many of us, these are the situations that make us angry with ourselves. It’s when we wonder why we’re so stupid or weak or weird or ridiculous or needy. It’s when we punish ourselves. Maybe we skip sleep to blast through our to-do list. It’s when we get so disappointed with ourselves that’s all we think about.
And yet these are all moments when self-forgiveness is important.
According to psychotherapist Ashley Eder, LPC, “Self-forgiveness is accepting responsibility for our actions both compassionately and seriously, while also cradling the hurt part that was acting out.”
She noted that it’s saying to ourselves: “I am sad that you acted this way. I can see where the impulse came from, and I’d like to love you instead of shaming you for this.”
So how do you forgive yourself?
“Compassion is the basis of forgiveness,” Eder said. Compassion takes practice. And at first it can feel like you’re putting on someone else’s clothes — itchy and ill-fitting. But compassion provides us with a healthier way to cope. It fosters our health and well-being. It inspires and encourages us.
Eder gave this example: You’re on deadline for an article. But you don’t feel like writing it. At. All. You say to yourself: “You have to write this article immediately, or you are a horrible person and a terrible writer!”
Does that motivate you to write your article?
What happens when you say to yourself: “Of course you don’t feel like writing — it’s been a long week and you’re not feeling it today. How about doing just a simple draft of it and then letting that be good enough if you aren’t inspired to do more?”
Your mood shifts, and you’re more likely to work on your piece. Because kindness is powerful. And helpful.
Below, Eder shared five ways to foster self-forgiveness, with compassion as the foundation.
Focus on the two layers of self-forgiveness
According to Eder, forgiveness has two stages. “First, we have to forgive ourselves for whatever act we committed that was harmful or wrong.” For instance, you might’ve hurt someone’s feelings or made a mistake at work.
Secondly, “we have to accept that we are humans who have complicated feelings and reactions that we are responsible for but cannot always control.” For instance, Eder noted that it’s normal to be defensive when you feel threatened, even though the person didn’t mean to upset you.
This takes hard work. But the fact that you can work on it is great news. And you can consult a therapist at any time.
Often it’s easier for us to be empathic toward others than toward ourselves. Think about how you’d feel about another person in this same situation, Eder said.
She suggested considering this key question: “Can you look at your own misgivings and see how developmentally, financially, socially, academically or practically you simply were doing the best you could with the resources available to you?”
Work on the issue, while accepting yourself
One of Eder’s clients struggled with chronic, sometimes debilitating anxiety. She also struggled with accepting and loving herself. “[S]he saw her anxiety as tedious baggage that came with her into all her relationships,” Eder said.
In addition to reducing her anxiety, they worked on her embracing and loving herself as a person who tended to be anxious. There were historical and biochemical reasons for her anxiety. And her anxiety also created a heightened sensitivity that uniquely enhanced her work and relationships.
According to Eder, “she had entered the realms of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness when she could say: ‘I do wish that anxiety weren’t such a regular struggle for me. It can be really burdensome and tiring for me and the people close to me. I do my best to manage it so that it does not control the bulk of my interactions and decisions. But sometimes, of course, it will. That’s not a mistake about me, that’s the fact of dealing with anxiety.’”
Use supportive statements
Pay attention to how you talk to yourself. Try to use supportive statements that feel authentic. Eder shared these examples:
- “Jeez, I really wanted that and it didn’t work out. Of course I have hurt feelings.”
- “People make mistakes all the time. It’s OK to be human.”
- “Man, I hate learning things the hard way. But here I am.”
Try a visualization
Visualizations can be powerful. Imagine holding yourself in a heart or in your palms, Eder said. That is, imagine cradling the self, she said. “Sending loving energy toward that image will help generate the positive feelings that engender compassion.”
Again, Eder stressed the importance of embracing the idea that you’re only human. And humans, of course, slip up, make poor decisions and can’t be perfect.
There’s a lot to be gained from adopting that perspective, Eder said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t want to do better the next time. It is simply a turning toward the fumbles and intricacies that make us unique and alive.”
Woman running late photo available from Shutterstock