Forgiving others isn’t always easy. When someone hurts you, it can require major strength (and maturity) to take a deep breath, put your ego aside, and accept a sincere apology. But what happens if the person you need to let off the hook is, er, yourself? Many of us are too self-critical and it can be really, really difficult to forgive yourself for making a mistake or hurting someone.
Maybe you’ve even already asked someone else for forgiveness, but you can’t figure out how to let go of guilt. Or maybe you need to grant yourself forgiveness for an annoying pattern that does more harm in your life than you’d like (people-pleasing anyone?). Perhaps you’re even wrestling with how to forgive yourself for something terrible—whether you actually committed an extremely not-okay offense, or your brain is spinning a minor incident into a story that evokes more shame than it deserves.
Whether you made a few careless comments at a wedding and now you’re on the wrong end of a possible friend breakup, or you’re tired of never sticking up for yourself, it can feel downright impossible to end the self-condemnation and let that shit go. And you may not even understand why it’s so hard to forgive yourself for past mistakes, no matter how ready you are (or think you are) to shed the burden of carrying these guilty feelings with you.
Often, “the reason why it can be challenging for some people to move into forgiveness is because it’s not just about that one event,” Courtney Cope, LMFT, a principle manager of clinical operations at online therapy platform BetterHelp, tells SELF. Whether the misstep is forgetting a friend’s birthday, say, or a bigger transgression like cheating on a partner, “the event triggers other negative emotions, and the person will then begin to recall all of the things they’ve done wrong,” she says.
Cope adds that resorting to shame, blame, or anger when you make a mistake can all feed into the struggle to self-forgive. No matter what thoughts or feelings have you stuck, we hope the expert advice below will help you forgive yourself and move on (because you deserve it).
1. Affirm your ability to forgive yourself.
If you can barely even think about what you did without quickly needing to focus on literally anything else—or if it’s sending you into a spiral of unhelpful, repetitive thoughts about the situation—that’s totally normal, Cope says. As a result, “people wrestling with self-forgiveness can feel depression, anxiety, or insomnia, and in more extreme examples, it might culminate in self-harm or self-medicating with substances.”
When whatever you did (or didn’t do) is weighing heavily on your mind, self-forgiveness might feel unachievable, which is why telling yourself you can move past this is an important step in the healing process, Fanny Tristan, LSCW-R, a New York City–based therapist, tells SELF. “Start by asking yourself, Do I believe in my ability to get better? To change and improve, while recognizing that I’m flawed just like everybody else?” Tristan recommends. Even if your brain responds with a resounding “NO,” challenging your negative thoughts in this way can help you begin to see the possibility of forgiving yourself, which is required to actually start doing it, she says.
2. Treat yourself like you would a best friend.
“When we’ve done something that is outside our moral comfort zone, often we start beating ourselves up about it, which doesn’t really help. So we have to practice a lot of self-compassion,” Emily Jamea, PhD, LMFT, tells SELF.
How how do you actually do that? You know the feeling when your best friend calls post-breakup and starts saying terrible things about themselves? Even if there is an opportunity for your bestie to grow from their pain, you probably start with something like, “Hey, you’re human—be kind to yourself.”
But we don’t always provide that caveat for ourselves, which is why simply asking what it would look like to address yourself as if you were talking to a friend can make you feel a bit better. “That question alone can help create a little bit of perspective and soften the negative feelings we may have toward ourselves,” Dr. Jamea says.
If you’re infamously hard on your friends (under the guise of “being honest”), this tip might not work as well for you. Instead, try looking at yourself as if you’re an innocent child or even a rambunctious puppy. The idea is to soften your heart toward your mistakes, Robert Allan, PhD, LMFT, assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, tells SELF. You should try to remember that “making mistakes is human. We’re all going to make them,” he says. Maybe you really did mess up but that doesn’t mean you’re a bad person: There’s a difference between saying “What I did was terrible” and “I am terrible.”
3. Write (or talk) the facts out.
Often, when you do something wrong, you might feel an overwhelming rush of guilt. That can make it tempting to view the interaction through a hazy mix of self-loathing and catastrophic thinking, or even to try to deny the effect your actions have had. In these cases, it might help to write down what happened, even if it wasn’t pretty, to say it out loud to yourself (maybe in a video or voice note), or to discuss it with a nonjudgemental person you trust. This can help you stop ruminating and see the situation as a learning experience.
“You have to be able to say, ‘This is something that I do or this is something that I have done, and it has had an impact on me or others in ways that I don’t want it to,’” Dr. Allan says, adding that if you can’t be honest with yourself about the source of your guilt, it’s harder to move forward and change your behavior in the future.
4. Ask yourself, “What was my expectation?”
Another way to spark a perspective shift: Identify the self-imposed standard that you think you failed to meet when you did (or said) the thing you regret. “What was the expectation, in your mind, of what you should have done in this situation?” Tristan asks. “Is this expectation grounded in reality, or in an idea of perfectionism, in which you’re expecting yourself to mind-read or never make mistakes?”
The point of this exercise isn’t to shift blame or shake off accountability, absolving you of any need to take action to remedy the situation. What these questions can do, though, is clarify whether you’re punishing yourself to an unreasonable degree.
For example, if you’re giving yourself a hard time for hurting your sister’s feelings, voicing a hidden inner assumption (I should always know the exact right thing to say to my sister) may make you see how unreasonable it is. Conversely, it could make you realize that you didn’t meet someone else’s fair expectation (I should stay and let my sister finish a story before walking away), which points you toward an issue you may not have realized you need to work on.
5. Try to make amends.
Once you’ve looked at your situation through a more compassionate lens and reflected on what really happened (and how you feel about it), you can ask yourself how you’d like to make amends. Let’s say you’re angry at yourself for letting another week go by without cleaning your apartment. You might take a look at your calendar and figure out a realistic day to get it done. If your transgression is something like yelling at a loved one during a drunken party, you might brainstorm ways to keep yourself from drinking too much in the future.
The idea isn’t to punish yourself but use your regret as an opportunity for personal growth. “An amends takes an apology one step further,” Dr. Jamea says. “It’s accountability for what you did and commitment to doing differently in the future.”
6. Try a mantra…and repeat.
Cope suggests “training” your brain to let go of mistakes by saying this to yourself (if it’s genuinely true) as often as you need to: “I did the best I could at the time with the knowledge that I had. Now, I’ll do better.” This reminder can challenge your inner critic and remind you that you’re worthy of forgiveness.
Or, she adds, maybe try this four-sentence mantra popularized by therapist Ihaleakala Hew Len, PhD, inspired by the traditional Hawaiian reconciliation practice of ho’oponopono (which very loosely translates to “make things right”): “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.”
“It’s a kind of repentance or way to acknowledge the mistake you’ve made,” Cope says. “It’s something that you can say to another person, if you’re having a reparative conversation—but you can also say it to yourself or write it in a journal, as a way to give yourself peace.”
7. Remember that forgiveness is a process.
Part of the reason self-forgiveness can feel so nebulous is that it often isn’t a one-time affair. It doesn’t always automatically happen after you’ve said “I’m sorry” in the mirror (or in your head). “Forgiveness is an active process, and it can require repetition,” Dr. Allan says.
It might take more than a mantra or quick inner chat to release the grudge you’re holding against yourself. Maybe you need to work with a therapist or other mental health professional to guide you in the self-forgiveness process. Regardless, ultimately, you’ll likely need to grant yourself some patience. “Forgiveness isn’t a doorway,” Dr. Allan says, “consider it something that you engage with over time.”
Patia Braithwaite is a writer and previously was an editor at SELF
starting in May 2019. She was previously the wellness editor at
Refinery29, and her freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post and VICE. She lives in Brooklyn, where, despite her busy schedule, she spends an unbelievable amount of time on her couch.
Samantha is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor covering relationships,
sex, culture, and identity, all in the pursuit of understanding how we
can better connect as humans. She spends her free time jogging, making
up songs with her son, and watching her favorite TV genre, “sexy
supernatural students attend a school for supernatural people.”