Lewis B. Smedes once said, “to forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” This is 100% true for self-forgiveness as well. Most of us know this, and desperately want to set ourselves free, but find that we have thrown away the key.
Finding ways to forgive yourself has exceptional effects on your well-being. This article will explore some beliefs that may be holding you back and get you in the right frame of mind to forgive yourself. I'm gonna suggest some actions to complete the self-forgiveness process and make a positive impact on the world around you.
By the end of the article, you’ll have 25 excellent science-backed tips for forgiving yourself and moving on as a better person.
- 12 ideas to prepare your mindset to forgive yourself
- 1. Your mistakes are not your identity
- 2. Shame is not the same as guilt
- 3. Uncomfortable feelings also need to be felt
- 4. Nobody can predict the future
- 5. Every mistake is a step forward
- 6. Forgiveness is not permission to do wrong
- 7. We are all on equal ground
- 8. You can have conflicting feelings at the same time
- 9. Everyone thinks mostly about themselves
- 10. There is such a thing as premature forgiveness
- 11. Self-forgiveness doesn’t require others to forgive you too
- 12. Forgiveness takes practice too
- 8 thought exercises to forgive yourself
- 5 actions to forgive yourself
- Wrapping up
12 ideas to prepare your mindset to forgive yourself
Some things, like figuring out how to forgive yourself, are difficult to do because unhelpful beliefs keep us from moving forward. Let’s take a moment to consider some ideas and principles before moving forward to specific exercises.
1. Your mistakes are not your identity
It can be really difficult to move on from our mistakes. We carry that guilt around and it feels like a part of us that we desperately want to cut out, but can’t.
But no matter how entrenched in our identity it feels, making a mistake does not make you a mistake.
2. Shame is not the same as guilt
Words like shame, guilt, regret, and remorse are sometimes used interchangeably.
But did you know guilt and shame are two entirely different things? In fact, they activate different portions of the brain. They also have very different effects on trying to forgive yourself.
- Guilt means feeling bad about your behavior and its consequences. You feel it when your actions conflict with your conscience. This is a useful emotion that guides your behavior in the future.
- Shame means having negative feelings about yourself as a whole. For example, you think you’re worthless or a bad person at your core. Shame often triggers defensive strategies like denial, avoidance, or physical violence. You’ll be less likely to try to change, as it may not even seem possible.
Healthy self-forgiveness involves releazing destructive feelings of shame and self-condemnation but still experiencing some guilt to help fuel positive change.
3. Uncomfortable feelings also need to be felt
Guilt and regret are hard to let go of and even harder to keep inside you. Such is the struggle of trying to forgive yourself.
Paradoxically, the way to let go of uncomfortable feelings is to become comfortable feeling them. People who are able to sit with the discomfort caused by remorse are more likely to forgive themselves.
The next time you feel that bitter twinge, don’t bat it away. Allow yourself to be curious:
- Where in your body do you feel it?
- What is the feeling like — sharp, pulsating, humming?
- Does it shift or change or stay constant?
4. Nobody can predict the future
We’re all smart looking back — everything seems obvious and it’s easy to think, “I knew it all along.”
But if that were true, you would not have made the decisions you made. We’re all doing the best we can at any given moment, with no idea what will come next.
A decision you make today can turn out to be a great blessing or a horrible misstep tomorrow. All you can do is act to the best of the knowledge you have now, and continue to do so at every moment in the future.
We can be sorry for many things, but not being clairvoyant shouldn’t be one of them.
5. Every mistake is a step forward
Life has taught many of us that mistakes are “bad” and deserve punishment. The wrong answer at school gets points docked from your grade, poor performance at work means a low-performance assessment, no bonus, or even losing your job.
As a result, the first impulse after making a mistake becomes hiding it.
But to forgive ourselves, we need to do the opposite — acknowledge the mistake and take responsibility for it.
As you can see, this counters our sense of survival. Yet we can rewire the way we think and recognize that mistakes simply show you the right path when you go astray.
Good judgement comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgement.Will Rogers
There is nothing shameful in taking an incorrect belief and replacing it with a correct one — or recognizing that a decision was poor and making better ones from now.
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6. Forgiveness is not permission to do wrong
Like a ship wandering aimlessly at sea, it will be very hard to forgive yourself without knowing clearly what you’re aiming for.
When we want to forgive ourselves, what we really wish for is to feel good about ourselves again. The best way to have that would be to believe that all our actions and decisions were good. But self-forgiveness is not convincing yourself that what you did was not so bad after all.
It’s giving yourself compassion and not letting regret eat away at you. You acknowledge that you made a poor choice that caused harm, but also that it was not your intention to do so, and that you will make better choices in the future.
7. We are all on equal ground
If someone else made the same mistake you did, would you be as hard on them as you are on yourself? For example, let’s say you frequently run late and feel terrible about it. If a friend of yours is late, would you be just as upset with them?
We are often understanding of others and we expect ourselves to be perfect. Your intentions may be pure, but at the end of the day, it is vain. You cannot expect yourself to be the one person on the planet who never makes mistakes — nor is it fair to give yourself such a huge burden.
8. You can have conflicting feelings at the same time
You may be trying to find ways to forgive yourself, but also empathize with the person you hurt. This can create an internal conflict. But these two feelings can both co-exist and be equally valid. Being compassionate towards yourself doesn’t mean you stop having compassion for others.
Self-forgiveness is not an “all or nothing” situation. You don’t have to fully release all your negative feelings or have a completely positive view of yourself. Rather, self-forgiveness can be seen as an act of humility, understanding that we are able to cause both harm and damage.
9. Everyone thinks mostly about themselves
One of our many biases is assuming that others think about the same things we do. If something is on your mind, others must be thinking about it too, right?
But in reality, everyone else is also busy thinking mostly about themselves. This is explained by the Spotlight Effect, which we've covered in this article on Tracking Happiness.
10. There is such a thing as premature forgiveness
It’s good to find a way to forgive yourself as soon as possible — but not too early.
Psychology professor Michael J.A. Wohl explains that some people do what he calls “pseudo-self-forgiveness”.
This means that they forgive themselves without taking responsibility for what they did wrong. For example, a student may miss a deadline for an assignment but deep down believe it’s really the professor’s fault for not giving enough time.
Premature forgiveness can also make you relapse into bad behavior. For example, let’s say a smoker is trying to quit but slips up. If they forgive themselves, they will more likely start smoking again.
True forgiveness should be granted as soon as possible, but only after you’ve learned the lesson that guilt teaches you.
11. Self-forgiveness doesn’t require others to forgive you too
As many wise people have said, “resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
Now, this doesn’t mean you have no reason to feel badly. But if you’ve given an honest apology, taken responsibility where needed, and made amends and changes where possible, you’ve done everything in your power to deserve self-forgiveness.
If the other person involved refuses to give it too, they’re only hurting themselves.
12. Forgiveness takes practice too
They say practice makes perfect — and self-forgiveness is no exception. Though we may want to get it over with as soon as possible, the truth is it does take a while to achieve.
This is because certain neuronal pathways become “hard-wired” when we have the same or similar experiences over and over — such as when we replay the same negative thought patterns over and over in our heads or regularly beat ourselves up over something from the past.
So any stimulus can automatically launch you into repeating the same self-condemning dialogue and feelings.
The good news is you can rewire and reroute these thoughts to more compassionate ones. But it takes time to clear a new path and let the old one fade. Be patient with yourself, and think of self-forgiveness like practicing a sport. The more you practice it, the better you’ll get at it.
8 thought exercises to forgive yourself
With the right mindset in place, it’s time to start the work. Here are specific thought exercises for forgiving yourself.
13. Be honest about what happened
Accepting uncomfortable truths is the first and hardest step towards self-forgiveness. If you’ve been making excuses, rationalizing, or justifying your actions to make them feel more acceptable, it’s time to look at the truth head-on.
People who have more balanced, realistic views of themselves are more likely to use constructive coping strategies. Also, you can forgive yourself most effectively when you also practice taking responsibility. Just trying to feel better isn’t enough to motivate positive change.
Start by considering why your action or decision felt okay in the moment. The idea here is not to convince yourself that what you did was better or worse, but just to take a look at what happened with an open mind and see what you can learn about yourself.
Scholars also suggest writing out an objective account of what happened, as if you were telling a story from a third-person perspective.
Include details about your actions (or inactions) and the motivations for them. You’ll develop a deeper and more compassionate understanding of where you went wrong and what you can learn.
14. Consider everyone’s part in the problem
While you are considering the truth of what happened, it is important to recognize what you can and cannot take responsibility for and separate your actions from those of others.
Blame rarely lies solely on just one person — it is usually distributed among several. Avoid trying to assign particular events to only you or someone else. Instead, consider ways that everyone involved may have contributed to what happened. If it helps, you can create a chart on paper with columns for each person.
If it is difficult for you to separate out what amount of responsibility you should take, experts suggest talking it out with a trusted friend or therapist.
15. Demand evidence for assumptions and beliefs
Struggling with self-forgiveness often means battling with negative beliefs and thoughts about yourself. Challenge them.
Try writing them down and demanding evidence from your assumptions and beliefs. For example, if you believe that you are a liar, write it down and then ask yourself:
- What is the evidence for this?
- Am I really a liar, or did I just lie that one time?
List out the lies you’ve told. You may find it’s a very short list, maybe even consisting of just the one lie you haven’t forgiven yourself for. And if it’s still bothering you years later, it’s pretty clear that it’s not a defining quality of yours, but you just got caught up in a situation.
Once you see proof that you are not an inherently bad person, it gets easier to forgive yourself for making a mistake.
16. Visualize the future you want
Imagine yourself free from guilt, regret, and self-condemnation. Visualize what your life would look like if you had no more regret.
Flesh out this visualization with the way you want to feel: liberated and at peace. You can use soothing music or other tools to help bring about the desired feelings. Bask in them for as long as you can.
This will help your goals feel more achievable and guide your actions throughout the day to reach them.
17. Practice loving-kindness for everyone involved
Science has found that self-forgiveness usually leads to less empathy for the “victim” of the mistake. This is understandable, as forgiving yourself puts the focus on you.
But without empathy for others, our forgiveness is shallow. Practices like loving-kindness meditation can help you cultivate compassion for the other person while you also grant it to yourself.
- Close your eyes and start by bringing up the feeling of love and compassion, in whatever way that feels easiest. Meditation experts suggest thinking of someone you feel great love towards, such as a child, a close family member, or a dear friend. Imagine this person and focus on the love and kindness you feel.
- Now “point” those feelings towards yourself. Offer yourself the same love and kindness, just as people who love you would.
- Finally, do the same for the person you’ve hurt.
- To finish off, you can imagine yourself extending this feeling of love and kindness to everyone on the planet, as if it were a bubble that encircles everyone.
18. Ask yourself for forgiveness
If you hurt someone else and you feel bad about it, you would probably tell them. You might say, “I’m sorry”, “I understand I hurt you and I didn’t mean to,” or “Please forgive me.” Then by their response, you would know whether or not they forgave you.
I suggest you approach self-forgiveness the same way: ask yourself for forgiveness explicitly.
It may feel silly, but why should you approach yourself with less respect and empathy than others? Besides that, if you just struggle with your thoughts and feelings, which are often fleeting, it’s hard to arrive at a concrete resolution.
Hearing yourself say it out loud, or writing it down if you prefer, is a way to crystallize your decision and commitment.
19. Look for meaning
Though you’re not proud of the actions you’re trying to forgive yourself for, you can still find personal meaning in them.
This has been shown to improve psychological well-being. Reframe the event as a significant, transformative experience that made you a better, more empathetic person.
It’s usually easier to do this on paper: write a brief and objective account of what happened and then write about all the ways you can think of that it has changed you for the better.
As a result, you can also reconnect with your core values and beliefs.
20. Don’t ruminate
We’ve written extensively about healthy ways to self-reflect. The key is avoiding the trap of rumination.
This is when you cycle through the same negative thoughts over and over again without going anywhere. When you reflect on what you want to forgive, the “session” should lead to a change in beliefs or planned action.
If you catch yourself ruminating, break out of it by turning your attention to something in your surroundings: the colors you see around you, what people are wearing, or the sensation of the chair you’re on.
If you’ve already forgiven yourself, remind yourself of that and make a decision not to engage in self-condemnation anymore. And if you haven’t, make a commitment to return to the issue when you have the time and energy to do it productively.
5 actions to forgive yourself
Forgiving yourself happens mostly in your mind. But the most effective self-forgiveness will be reflected in the real world too. Here are 6 ways to act on forgiving yourself and make you and the world a better place.
21. Make amends if possible
Self-forgiveness may be easier if everyone involved feels some sense of closure, and you feel like you’ve truly earned it. Making amends is a great way to do both.
The most basic form of amends you can always attempt is giving an honest apology. This acknowledges the person’s feelings and your effects on them. It also shows that you feel bad about the pain you caused.
Where possible, you can also do meaningful actions that will undo some of the damage, or at least make a positive difference in the future. These actions should reflect what you learned from the situation or how you are changing your behavior or attitude. For example, a teenager who shoplifted could donate clothes to a charity or shelter.
If you’re not sure what could be an appropriate way to make amends, you can try asking the person you’ve hurt.
22. Do good
Hurting others, even unintentionally, can damage our perception of ourselves. We want to believe we hold certain values, but our actions didn’t reflect that, and that shakes up our sense of identity.
Volunteering is a great way to reaffirm what you stand for and promote self-forgiveness. You’ll also be proving to yourself what values you stand for with concrete actions as irrefutable evidence.
Try to make this into a commitment you don’t cancel, like going to work or showing up to a personal training session.
With time, you’ll be able to see yourself as a good person with imperfections rather than someone who has violated actions at their core.
23. Connect with others
Spending time deepening bonds with others may not sound like it has much to do with self-forgiveness, but science shows it does.
Social support and connection play a large role in the self-forgiveness process. For example, military personnel returning from battle sometimes feel misunderstood and rejected. Being angry or disappointed with yourself can create a similar sense of isolation to a certain extent.
Connecting with others helps you cultivate a sense of belonging and empowerment that helps you move forward in forgiving yourself.
24. Make meaningful changes
At the beginning of this article, we mentioned how you’re a new person with every breath. But it may be easier to believe you prove to yourself that you’ve changed for the better.
As therapist Keir Brady explains, acknowledging that your actions caused a problem is the first step. The next is to change your behavior moving forward. An example she gives is leaving your house earlier if you are repetitively late and feel bad about it.
This supports the self-forgiveness process too, as by taking it upon yourself to do something, you’re taking responsibility for your part in the problem.
If changing your behavior won’t help, you can consider trying to make a positive difference in a different way, such as volunteering, sharing your story with others, or creating a solution to prevent similar issues from happening.
25. Write down that you forgave yourself
How often have you told yourself you’ll remember something, then forgotten? There’s a reason why we write down things that are important to remember, from grocery lists to phone numbers.
Well, forgiving yourself is pretty darn important — so why not write it down too?
People may go through a hard effort to forgive themselves, but the next time the negative thought pops back up a few days later, it’s like they’re back to square one.
Forgiveness research Everett Worthington says writing it down solidifies your commitment to yourself that yes, you did forgive yourself for this already. It’s a deserved reminder that there’s no need to engage in self-condemnation or rumination anymore or replay the same forgiveness process over and over.
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Now you know 27 solid ways to forgive yourself and move forward as a better person. As we’ve previously explored, forgiving yourself plays an enormous role in physical and emotional well-being. Now with these tips, I hope you’ll be able to put everything into action and find the emotional peace you deserve.