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13 Reasons Why Self-Forgiveness is So Hard (But Important!)


If an alien race ever studied human relationships, they’d be baffled by one in particular: the one we have with ourselves. We want only the best for ourselves, and to be happy. And yet, you may find it extremely hard to forgive yourself.

Holding a grudge against someone else may make some sense — we want to hold the moral ground, and it feels good to be the poor victim who was wronged. But what if your anger is towards you? Refusing to forgive yourself imprisons yourself in the role of the bad guy. Why is it so hard to do something that will make us happier, healthier, and better? 

In this article, I’ll explain 13 reasons why it’s so difficult to forgive yourself. Then, I’ll give a simple yet effective model for how to do it.

Why is it so hard to forgive yourself?

Why are we so hard on ourselves? Unfortunately, there are some evolutionary reasons for our inability to forgive ourselves.

If you want to learn how to forgive yourself, it's important to know about the science behind it all.

Here are 13 reasons why forgiving yourself is so difficult.

1. You don’t want to change

Forgiving yourself means accepting that you’ve done something wrong. And that means there is something you need to change.

But as humans, we also long for acceptance, and that can make us very resistant to the idea that we have to change.

So sometimes, we might try convincing ourselves we’ve forgiven ourselves. But really, we’re overlooking or excusing our behavior. As this isn’t true forgiveness, the anger or guilt will keep clinging to you.

Changing can be uncomfortable, but it's the only way forward when you need to let go of your past actions.

Remember that your mistakes are not you. So you don't have to change your identity, just your behavior in certain situations. 

2. You think forgiving yourself takes away from repentance

Perhaps you view self-forgiveness as condoning your past actions. You think if you forgive, it means you're no longer sorry for what you’ve done. So you refuse to let go of guilt to prove that you do repent.

Suffering is your own form of personal punishment.

However, this just makes you less happy and brings negative feelings into all your other relationships.

So it's time to reframe this belief. Forgiveness doesn’t mean giving yourself the green light to make the same mistakes again. It’s simply not letting your past ones shackle you down.

3. You don’t want to shatter your self image

We all like to believe that we’re good people with good values. So what happens when you do something that violates those values? It can be hard to reconcile that person with the person you want to see yourself as.

This can make us feel fractured. We become two incompatible selves. So you might refuse to acknowledge that you did something wrong (and forgive yourself for it) as a way to keep your self image intact.

Here's one way researchers suggest overcoming this. Affirm your values and remember that you are a complex, benevolent human. You can have great intentions and amazing qualities, and still make mistakes. Reflecting on yourself and recognizing this helps reconcile your conflicting selves. 

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4. Your past mistakes have become part of your identity

Dr. Matt James from Psychology Today points out that we define ourselves on a time continuum. We start with the past, move through the present, and head towards the future. 

Thus, leaving the past behind (or our version of it in our minds) can feel like losing the ground underneath us. If you've clung to it for a long time, it's like trying to release something that's a part of you and your identity. 

For this, Gautama Buddha offers the best advice: “Every breath I take is a new me.” He wasn’t speaking metaphorically. His teachings say that life is constant reincarnation from a previous you to a present you.

At any moment, you may experience happiness, sadness, fear, or anger. But that emotion doesn’t last; it changes with each breath and then vanishes. It was experienced by a previous you. And whatever happens in your next breath will be experienced by a different, future you.

If we embrace this concept, then letting go of our past actions is not creating a hole in our identity. In reality, it allows us to let go of someone who no longer exists, and give ourselves space to be the person we are now.

5. You’re too hard on yourself

Chances are, you’ve forgiven people you love and trust for many things. You’re willing and able to see that they made a mistake, regret it, and will do whatever they can to avoid repeating it.

But sadly, many of us don’t have a loving and trusting relationship with ourselves. Instead, we can be extremely critical and have very high expectations. We refuse to cut ourselves the same slack we generously give our friends or family.  

The solution here is to foster love and empathy towards yourself. No matter what your mistake was, you're certainly not the first or only one to make it. You're a human just like everyone else, and like your loved ones you deserve forgiveness too.

6. You can’t walk away from yourself

If someone you don’t like or trust hurts you, you might forgive them or not. But you don’t have to be confronted with these feelings as you can easily walk away and avoid contact with them.

With yourself, it’s a different story. No matter what you do in life, you're the one person you cannot leave behind. So if your usual reaction to being angry with someone is to walk away, you'll drag your pain everywhere with you.

In order to forgive yourself, you have to choose a different tactic. Avoidance is just one of many different ways to resolve conflict. Though it may feel silly, you can try to imagine having a discussion with yourself and explicitly ask for forgiveness.

7. You hold yourself responsible for things you can’t control

When things are out of your control, it can be impossible to make amends or fix a problem. These are two things that often lead the way to forgiveness.

So if you hold yourself responsible for something you can’t do anything about, you may see no way to forgive yourself.

You must recognize that if you have little or no control over the problem, then you cannot hold most of the blame for it either. It’s natural to feel upset or sorry over something going wrong. But it’s not fair to take more than your share of responsibility over the problem.

Try putting yourself in the shoes of the other people involved. What role did they play in the problem? If you were them, what would be some of your regrets? Forgive them, along with yourself.

8. You’ve forgiven yourself, but can’t hold onto that feeling

Perhaps you feel like you keep replaying the same forgiveness process over and over again. If that's the case, it's not actually difficult to forgive yourself, but rather to maintain that feeling afterwards.

Forgiveness is often thought of like a one-time thing. But it’s actually a continuous process, like keeping a garden clear of weeds. You can pull them all out, but that doesn’t mean no more will ever pop up again. You’ll have to keep doing a bit of maintenance to keep everything in order.

9. You’re avoiding making things right

Refusing to forgive ourselves can be a way to avoid the consequences of our actions.

This is a form of penance, but one that makes us run away from our sense of responsibility. The solution here is therefore pretty clear: face up to what you need to do to repair the damage. Stand up and take responsibility for your actions.

10. Self-criticism is rooted in you

Some personality types are much more critical than others. They beat themselves up over every little thing, and constantly look for confirmation of their negative self-beliefs. For example, a neurotic person may struggle with this.

These kinds of people will also find it much harder to let go of past mistakes. Of course, it is still possible, but the process may take a little longer. You may also need to remind yourself that you have in fact forgiven yourself.

11. It feels selfish to forgive yourself

Forgiveness, particularly if it is towards yourself, may feel selfish. But in reality, it's definitely not.

While it's true that in self-forgiveness, that empathy is offered to yourself and not others. But the principle stays the same.

Empathy and compassion are always a good thing. If it still feels selfish, remember that you cannot truly be empathetic to others if you have built up anger in yourself.

12. You depend on others’ opinions to forgive yourself

Another reason you might find it hard to forgive yourself is that you’re relying on other people’s opinions of you. What you did could have been horrible, comprehensible, or even totally okay. It all depends on what the people say, and you need them to tell you which one it is. And you can only forgive yourself if they tell you everything is okay.

On one hand this is understandable. Humans are social creatures and influenced by others. How others perceive us plays a large role in our survival and status, so it can feel like part of our identity.

But the problem with this is that you're allowing others to define your sense of morals.

For example, if someone tells you that you did something horrible, this may be true — or not. Alternatively, they could also be:

  • Affected by their past and perceive normal things as hurtful.
  • Influenced by other events you don't know about.
  • Misunderstanding the situation.
  • Lashing out at you from pain that has nothing to do with you.
  • Playing psychological games out of unresolved hurt or anger.

What they say doesn't automatically define whether your actions or intentions were right or wrong. After all, they’re only one person. Ask a dozen others and you might hear a dozen more opinions. Which one should you go with now?

You can of course be sorry that you’ve caused someone pain. It's also good to seriously consider whether or not there’s something you can work on. But you need to be able to form your own opinion of yourself and your actions.

13. You expect to forgive yourself too fast

Some things are easy to forgive, and others are very difficult. Forgiveness is not always a quick process.

You may need to do several sessions of introspection, meditation, or therapy to work through all your unprocessed emotions.

Why it’s important to forgive yourself

There are many reasons why forgiving yourself is hard. But it's very worth the struggle, and here is why.

If you don’t forgive yourself, you may be letting your misguided actions redefine your sense of who you are.

Rather than letting go of your past mistakes, they become a part of your identity. Now your mistakes contaminate your values, thought patterns, and future decisions.

If you’re a reader of Tracking Happiness, it’s clear you’re committed to personal growth and being the best person you can be. If this is the case, then self-forgiveness is definitely something you should work on.

Forgiving yourself for past mistakes makes you more likely to make better decisions in the future. You'll stop repeating the same mistakes and grow into a better person.

Once you forgive yourself, you let yourself start the next chapter of your story. This is called "changing your personal narrative":

  • From “I am terrible and unworthy of love and acceptance,”
  • To “I am a fallible and precious human who learned an important lesson which has helped me to become more than I once was.” 

Lastly, forgiveness offers many mental wellbeing benefits including:

  • Better mental and emotional wellbeing.
  • More positive attitudes.
  • Healthier relationships.

And also physical health benefits, including:

  • Reduced pain perception.
  • Lower cortisol levels.
  • Lower blood pressure.

But if you still need more convincing, this last point will blow your mind. Forgiveness can give you the same benefits as 40 years of Zen training. A program called 40 Years of Zen measured alpha waves during meditation.

It found that holding onto grudges is the single biggest factor suppressing them. Even those with little meditation experience could achieve the alpha brain state once they forgave. 

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How to forgive yourself in 5 simple steps

I’ve already written extensively on how to forgive in a previous article, How to Let Go of Anger. I wrote it with forgiving others in mind, but you could apply the same tips to forgiving yourself.

Here are 5 tips to help you forgive yourself.

1. Recall the hurt

Imagine the situation again and recall the hurt that it has caused you or other people. Be honest with yourself about what happened. Don’t treat yourself like a victim, or anyone else as a jerk.

Make a conscious decision now to not pursue payback and treat everyone involved as a valuable person.

2. Empathize with yourself

Empathize with the person who did the hurt (in this case, yourself).

Imagine talking to a clone of yourself, if that helps. Your clone is your past “you” who make the mistake, and you are the present you who is hurting and angry. Tell your past self about your thoughts and feelings: pour your heart out.

Then, switch positions and sit in the “past you”’s chair. Explain from that perspective what you were thinking and feeling at the time. Try to help the present you see why you made your decisions.

3. Give yourself an altruistic gift

Give forgiveness as an unselfish, altruistic gift. If you’ve done something wrong, you may feel you don’t “deserve” to be let off the hook. But you can still give yourself the gift of self-forgiveness.

4. Commit to forgiveness

Do something to show your commitment. For example, you can write down “Today, on [date], I forgave myself for [past mistake]”.

5. Hold onto forgiveness

There may be times when your anger and hurt starts to resurface and you start ruminating again. Remind yourself that you did in fact forgive yourself. Reread your note if necessary.

💡 By the way: If you want to start feeling better and more productive, we've condensed the information of 100's of our articles into a 10-step mental health cheat sheet here. 👇

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Wrapping up

Now you know 13 reasons why it’s so hard to forgive yourself for your past mistakes. I hope you now have insight into what to do next, and are one step closer to self-forgiveness. In doing so, you’ll give amazing benefits to both yourself and others in your life. 

Got any more thoughts on how to forgive yourself? I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

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Silvia Adamyova

Writer

Born in Slovakia, raised in Canada. Online English teacher, editor, copywriter, and translator. You’ll find me holed up in a bookstore, typing in a cafe, or immersed in a philosophical debate.

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