Forgiving someone else can become a healing experience. Learning to forgive yourself may be just as important.
Part of being human is making mistakes. Processing guilt and learning from those mistakes can help you learn and grow.
But sometimes, even after you’ve learned from them, forgiving yourself for past mistakes can be challenging. This is when it’s important to become intentional and work through the challenge.
Health benefits of forgiveness
The act of forgiveness has been associated with a number of health benefits.
Research from 2016 suggests forgiveness can reduce your stress levels and improve mental health.
Results of a
If you’re feeling guilty, try to remember that you’ve done the best can with the resources at hand.
Your understanding about yourself and past situations isn’t necessarily the same you had back then.
“It’s time to forgive yourself for not knowing everything you know now,” says Wayne Pernell, a clinical psychologist and author from San Francisco. “It’s time to forgive yourself for not speaking up in the ways that you’ve replayed the conversation in your head over the years.”
Time and growth may have given you a perspective you didn’t have when you made the mistake. Knowing this means you’ve already learned a lesson.
“You’re allowed to feel afraid and guilty,” says Pernell. Those feelings actually allow the current “you” to realize how past mistakes could have been handled differently. Now you can use that information for future situations.
These additional tips can also help you forgive yourself for past behavior:
1. Accepting guilt as an emotion
Humans experience emotions, and guilt is one of those.
According to Albert Nguyen, a clinical social worker from Palo Alto, California, guilt is just as important as any other emotion humans feel.
“Every emotion has a purpose that informs us about how we’re doing. You’re human. Let yourself feel it,” he says.
Guilt can actually help you be empathetic, as you understand that your actions can impact someone else.
If you’re feeling guilty, try to let it flow without dwelling on it. Feeling it can help you process it and move on from it. Dwelling might put you on an endless loop that could affect your emotional health.
2. Self-compassion techniques
By definition, self-compassion refers to the process of treating yourself with the same care as you would someone you love. This includes acts of self-forgiveness.
Taylor Kinman, a licensed professional counselor from Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, says she believes self-compassion is one of the most important things people can do for their mental health.
“When you’re beating yourself up or struggling to forgive yourself for something, ask yourself, ‘If my best friend were in this situation, what would I say to them?’” she suggests. “A lot of times we are much harder on ourselves than we would be on our loved ones.”
You can cultivate self-compassion by:
- re-assessing and changing negative thinking and self-talk
- journaling about your emotions, past mistakes, and challenging situations
- nurturing yourself through self-care
- giving yourself words of encouragement and love whenever you’re feeling a negative emotion
- reminding yourself you’re doing the best you can
3. Letting the wound heal
When you get a scratch, your body immediately starts the healing process. Eventually, that scratch develops a scab to help the tissue underneath mend. Ripping off the scab can set back the healing process.
When you can’t forgive yourself, it’s like keeping an emotional wound open.
To help with this, Nguyen suggests looking at behaviors that induce intense feelings of guilt. It’s important to do this without judgment.
Nguyen recommends looking at these behaviors as something separate from your identity. Try to look at these actions without immediately thinking what they say about you.
“Judging yourself from what you did doesn’t help you fix the problem,” he adds.
In other words, try focusing on the behaviors and possible ways to behave differently, instead of thinking of your character and identity.
For example, rethinking a quarrel with a friend as, “I raised my voice and interrupted them continuously,” instead of, “I’m intolerant and a bad friend.”
4. Considering the opposite point of view
When you’re overwhelmed with guilt, it’s natural to assume the other party involved is also fixated on what happened in the same way. That may be the case, but it’s not always true.
Reminding yourself that the other person may not be affected like you thought they were can help alleviate guilt, says Pernell.
5. Asking for forgiveness
Perhaps one of the most challenging things in life is to ask for forgiveness from someone you’ve hurt. It often involves confronting the situation, which can lead to a cascade of unpleasant emotions.
Nguyen says, “Another common thing with guilt is that it leads to avoidance — we’d rather punish ourselves and hide than come clean and resolve the issue directly.”
What happens when you avoid facing the situation? “It grows and festers inside when it doesn’t need to,” explains Nguyen. “If you can, be willing to apologize sincerely and attempt to make appropriate amends to whoever was affected.”
Attempting to repair the situation, regardless of the outcome, can help you forgive yourself.
6. Getting an immediate boost
Feeling overwhelmed by guilt in the moment? Taking a shower or bath may help.
Research from 2011 suggests the act of cleaning yourself may temporarily diminish feelings of guilt or doubt.
Spending this time on yourself may also help you think of the situation in different ways and gain perspective on how to approach the next steps.
Forgiving yourself sometimes is about not fueling the guilt.
Steps to accept responsibility and move on
Nguyen says it’s important to accept there are often consequences to your actions. This can make self-forgiveness more attainable.
In order to accept responsibility and move on, he suggests:
- owning your role in what happened by saying it out loud, telling someone, or writing about it
- considering who was involved and asking for forgiveness
- accepting there may be consequences and being willing to assume those
- learning from past mistakes by planning how you’ll handle a similar situation in the future
There are many reasons why you might have a hard time or be unwilling to forgive yourself.
Low self-esteem, being naturally self-critical, and growing up in an environment of criticism or abuse, for example, are things that can contribute to difficulty forgiving past mistakes.
Some conditions may make you more likely to experience guilt and have a hard time forgiving yourself. For example:
Unresolved guilt, according to Nguyen, can quickly transform into other unhelpful thoughts or behaviors like:
- substance use
When to seek help
Experiencing guilt is natural, but you may need to speak with a mental health professional if guilt:
- leads to social withdrawal
- negatively impacts your relationships
- prevents you from meeting obligations like work or school
- contributes to symptoms of anxiety or depression
- impairs basic daily functioning
Living with guilt can be painful. Practicing self-forgiveness can protect your mental health.
Self-compassion, time, and owning responsibility for your role in a situation can all be ways to help you forgive yourself.
If you feel as though guilt is overwhelming, negatively impacting your life, or causing you extreme distress, speaking with a professional may help.