The hardest person to forgive is often ourselves.
We more easily forgive the bad things that are done to us than let go of the bad things that we’ve done to ourselves.
While a certain level of guilt is expected when we realize how we’ve hurt others, many people erroneously harbor negative feelings and negative emotions about something that they aren’t even responsible for.
This is part of the reason that self-forgiveness is so difficult. We take the blame for things we haven’t done, exaggerate our past mistakes, and severely resist letting go of self-condemnation.
We have difficulty letting go of the past–especially when there is nothing more left to learn and we’ve since become better people because of it.
The Power of Self-Forgiveness and Why You Feel So Guilty
My favorite definition of “guilt” comes from Merriam-Webster:
Feelings of deserving blame especially for imagined offenses or from a sense of inadequacy
This is good, but it’s still incomplete. Yes, if you make mistakes, you’ll feel guilty. But you could just as easily feel embarrassed or ashamed for the same reason.
What makes guilt unique is that it’s a distinct feeling of being unable to let go of the past.
You feel guilty because you wish that you could change the past and undo whatever you’ve been ruminating on. Unfortunately, you can’t reverse misdeeds. Time passes on, regardless of how much self-blame you inflict.
The only way to feel better in the present is to forgive yourself for what you’ve done in the past.
You feel guilty because you’re waiting for something negative to happen to you that you think you deserve. Even if you got the retribution that you think you deserve, you won’t feel like it’s enough because you’ll always carry the memory of what you’ve done.
The only way your self-loathing will ever stop is by the forgiveness process, which is focused on yourself.
When you forgive, you let go of the past and the need to “balance the emotional books”. You’ll no longer feel like you should be punished or that you deserve something horrible to happen to you. Your negative thoughts will evaporate and you’ll finally stop the self-blame.
We all live with mistakes in our past
Before I got sober, I made a lot of mistakes.
While I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a “bad person”, my behavior certainly made it hard to be my friend and easy to be my enemy.
It wasn’t until I stopped drinking that I could properly feel bad about how I carried myself and interacted with other people. I couldn’t forgive myself until I started feeling bad.
This guilt is crucial to the forgiveness process.
After all, if you don’t have anything to feel guilty about, then there is no need to forgive yourself. To feel bad is natural and expected. This is how we know that we’ve done something that goes against our personal values. No one goes their entire life without making mistakes, so as a human being, it’s expected that you’ll experience some guilt in your life.
Experiencing guilt isn’t the problem.
The problem is when the guilt remains long after the event that caused it has passed. The issue is when you can’t let go of the past even though all the people who were part of it have already moved on.
When you have learned the lesson and people have moved on, but you still feel guilty about what you have (or have not) done, then you need to work on self-forgiveness. You need to learn how to forgive yourself.
Here are the steps to get over the negative feelings you have about yourself, your negative emotions about the events, and to finally get some self-acceptance about something that you’ve been giving yourself a hard time over.
(Read: “Why Am I So Unhappy?”)
How to forgive yourself and let go of past mistakes in 6 steps
1. Accept that you’ve made mistakes in the past
When we make mistakes, we have 3 typical responses. We either:
- Deny the error in judgment that put us into a compromising position.
- Blame others for our mistakes in an attempt to deflect responsibility.
- Take complete responsibility for everything that is wrong.
The first response alleviates blame, the second response shifts it, and the third response absorbs too much. Every mistake you’ve made is a combination of the things you did, the things you responded to, and the mindset you had when you faced these problems.
The only thing you have control over is the first one–how you responded. Even then, your environment and mentality had a heavy influence, and those two things are important, but they are not within your control.
When it comes to self-forgiveness, there’s no reason to focus on who or what is responsible. You merely need to accept that you made a mistake.
Intellectually, you try to learn from the mistake so that you don’t repeat it. Emotionally, you can’t begin to forgive yourself until you accept that you made a mistake.
There’s no reason to dwell on this fact. All that’s required is that you accept it.
2. Acknowledge those mistakes to let go of the past
The past is a thing that you can’t experience with any of your senses.
You can’t see it, touch it, taste it, hear it, or smell it. For all intents and purposes, the past does not exist.
When you look at things that were built and endure, you aren’t looking at the past any more than when you put your hand into a river, you’re touching old water.
The water flows to a different location, but you can’t touch water from the past. You exist now, but what’s done is done. You can’t go back and undo it anymore than you can reverse the flow of time.
A big reason why we give ourselves a hard time is because we’re unable to let go of the past. We hold on to the past like it’s real, but it only exists in our memories and imagination.
There’s nothing you can do about this, and recognizing that you are powerless to rectify these mistakes is key to forgiving yourself.
3. Self-forgiveness requires accepting an uncomfortable but liberating truth
I’ve talked to many people who suffered physical or sexual assault and they often blame themselves.
What we have to remember is that these things are not our fault. When a person devalues us with violent victimization, the only way we can make sense of such cruelty and disregard for human life is to assume we brought it on ourselves.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Few things are more obstructive to self-forgiveness than harboring the idea that you are responsible when you were a victim. Here is an uncomfortable truth that many of us don’t like to think about, but will help you forgive yourself:
It’s not your fault if you were robbed, raped, or victimized. Bad things will happen to you simply because you exist in the universe with other humans whose desire exceeds their moral character. Sadly, sometimes–even by virtue of where or who we’re born to–we’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If you look around the world, you see how impersonal and unfair the universe can be. There are bad people with great lives, good people who became innocent bystanders, crooks who got away with it, and good guys in prison for things they didn’t do.
While I believe that abdicating personal responsibility is always a recipe for disaster, you must never forget that life is probabilistic. In life, the best processes don’t always guarantee the best outcomes.
Even taking maximum precautions, it’s still sometimes your unlucky day. Don’t feel bad if you do your best to protect yourself or loved ones and the impersonal universe still deals them a bad hand.
4. Respect the role of time in self-forgiveness
There is nothing that can survive the onslaught of time. Even the universe will eventually collapse. Fortunately, we can assist the aid of time.
“Decay theory” is the idea that memories fade over time. A group of researchers from Boston College discovered that memories are like old photographs in that they fade over time. Boston College Assistant Professor of Psychology Maureen Ritchey, a cognitive neuroscientist and co-author of the study has this to say:
A simple analogy is what happens when you post a photo on Instagram. You’re cued to apply a filter that changes the brightness or color saturation of the image. In our study, we asked if forgetting is like applying a filter to past experience, and whether or not the emotional significance of the event would change which filter you apply.
The negativity of the memory didn’t affect how it faded over time. The study also implied that we can change how we remember the past by actively working on how we feel about it. This strength of our ability to modify memories increases the more time has passed since the event.
We found that memories seem to literally fade: people consistently remembered visual scenes as being less vibrant than they were originally experienced,” said Cooper. “We had expected that memories would get less accurate after a delay, but we did not expect that there would be this qualitative shift in the way that they were remembered.
Fortunately, time weakens our memories and gives us the ability to change our interactions with the event that makes us guilty. I remember how often I’d be wracked with guilt in the first 2 years of my sobriety. Now that I’m 6 years in, I experience guilt even less.
(Read: “10 Observations From 2 Years Of Sobriety”)
Time is your friend when it comes to getting over things. Respect the role it plays in your life and what is possible when you let go of the past and try to change how you see what you think has already happened.
(Further Reading Of Interest: “Memory Reconsolidation Treatment For PTSD”)
5. Remember that you are human and imperfect
If you believe yourself to be perfect, infallible, and invincible, then you’re in for a rude surprise.
It’s one thing to admit to yourself that you made a mistake. It’s another thing entirely to accept you are, despite your best efforts, going to mess up.
You have to make peace with the idea that many people–yourself included–are just making life up as they go along. If you get discouraged at yourself for not always having the perfect plan, answer, or course in life, then you’re in for a lot of disappointment.
Everything that happens to you is an opportunity to learn and be better.
If you view what you’ve experienced through this lens, then it becomes very difficult to feel guilty. The physical world has already dealt with you, but it’s up to you to decide how your mind and emotions will react.
Will you learn from the experience or will you see it as a reason to put yourself down? Will you get better or will you become bitter?
You have to consciously choose how to interpret your life and choose a lens that gives you the ability to forgive the mistakes you’ve made if you’re in a better place and trying to improve.
6. Love and respect yourself
It’s always easier to forgive other people–especially when it’s a loved one. Generally speaking, the more we like and care about someone, the more quickly and easily we forgive them. This is why it’s important that you also cultivate this type of relationship with yourself.
When you hold yourself in high regard, you’re less tolerant of things that take a toll on your mental health.
When dealing with other people, you always have the option to just separate yourself if you’re unable to forgive. When it comes to dealing with ourselves, we don’t get the option to separate from our being. We’re forced to proceed with self-compassion or we suffer.
You may not love or think very highly of yourself at this moment, but I have an easy trick that will help to raise your self-esteem so that you start to value yourself enough to forgive yourself.
Think of the last time you accomplished something–even if it was just getting up and going to work. If you haven’t accomplished something, think of the last time someone gave you a compliment (who wasn’t your mother). Think about the valuable relationships you have with your friends and family.
All of this is training you to see that there are people who think highly of you, despite what you think of yourself. This, in turn, will help you think more highly of yourself.
The Art Of Self-Forgiveness And Letting Go Of Past Mistakes
- Accept That You’ve Made Past Mistakes
- Acknowledge The Mistake And Let Go Of The Past
- Self-Forgiveness Requires Accepting A Uncomfortable But Liberating Truth
- Respect The Role Of Time In Self-Forgiveness
- Remember That You Are Human And Imperfect
- Love And Respect Yourself
If you follow these 6 steps, you’ll be able to shed your guilt and return to a state of self-acceptance in no time.
The rest is up to you.