Forgiving Yourself

Most of us make at least one major blunder in our lives and sometimes we make more than one. A major blunder is defined as something that actually or potentially harms someone else physically or mentally or both, regardless of whether or not that was our intent.

This incident is typically followed by excruciating feelings of regret, guilt, shame and constantly returning to the event, framing it as ‘if only I’d…’  We may have dreams and nightmares where versions of the traumatic event are vividly replayed. Our minds can be flooded by repeated unwanted imagery of the worst aspect of the event – its sounds, sights, smells arousing the same feelings of panic that accompanied the event itself. Often the feelings are disproportionate to whatever our own contribution actually was to whatever went wrong and sometimes they are entirely irrational as even with hindsight there may have been nothing we could have done to prevent it. Being able to tell yourself that all of this is irrational does not usually help and the thoughts can be intrusive, leaking into feelings of wellbeing and affecting performance at work. Other typical feelings will include constantly trying to turn the clock back, ruminating on the horror of it, obsessing about your motivation, fearing doing it again, getting it out of perspective and failing to ask how much any of it will matter in x years’ time.

Irrational beliefs that prevent self-forgiveness

I am sick with self-loathing so how can I ever expect to be forgiven?

I don’t deserve kindness or compassion

If people really knew what I was like they would shun me

It’s better for me to hide so that I don’t hurt myself or anyone else ever again

How self-forgiveness helps

Self forgiveness is a process of acknowledging whatever wrong you did, if you did, and being able to move on. Note that it is not about ‘closure’ which is an unrealisable goal where any loss or trauma is concerned, but it is about management. There is nothing that human beings can do that cannot be forgiven. By following these steps you gradually reduce the impact of the event and its damaging effects.

What to do

Accept that human beings are essentially imperfect: all major religions have this as their core and you do not need to believe in any of them to see the truth in the assertion. Perfection is impossible. Practise self-acceptance: you don’t need forgiveness for being you.

  • Distinguish between shame and guilt. Shame involves blaming your whole self, castigating yourself as ‘a bad person’. This is not helpful. Your mistake does not define you. It is most unlikely that you are a bad person and in itself this is an example of the all-or-nothing thinking that can take us over in the aftermath of trauma. Guilt by contrast involves feeling bad about some aspect of our behaviour and its aftermath. Guilt is associated with remorse: feelings of genuine regret about what happened and yearning for forgiveness
  • Release destructive feelings of shame but maintain appropriate levels of guilt and remorse
  • Avoid talking too much about the event as this will recreate it in your mind
  • Avoid the trap of blaming the person you harmed. They may indeed be responsible for some of what happened, but that is for them to acknowledge and manage
  • Remind yourself of your many good qualities: eg loyalty, a gift for friendship, persistence, patience
  • Sort what happened into three areas: moral faults, lack of skill and everything else. Moral faults are more deserving of remorse and guilt than mere lack of skill which calls for correction or learning, no more
  • Own up: acknowledge to a trusted other person that you got something wrong. You did make a mistake. Say in your mind or out loud, I am responsible for…………. and ………. Let yourself feel it. Then say, I am not responsible for………. and………. For example you are not responsible for the misinterpretations and over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in
  • Make amends if you can. This may be tricky as it is often difficult to know what would be appropriate. So for instance it may be easy enough to replace a small piece of property if you damaged it, not so easy if you said something hurtful and slighting to another person. It’s up to you to decide what level of reparation is enough. Any self-punishment should be mild and time-limited
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to make amends. This may already be enough. Next, decide what, if anything still needs to be done and do it
  • Don’t overdo the empathy. In the early stages there is often a great deal of empathy for the victim. However, as self-forgiveness increases, empathy decreases. This is healthy
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind or out loud or to others, I forgive myself for………. and………. I have taken responsibility and done what I can to make amends
  • Keep a journal tracking your progress, noting improvements
  • See self-forgiveness as a journey not a destination – self forgiveness does not have a timetable. Let it happen in gradual stages
  • Ask yourself what learning there is even in these horrible experiences – there will always be some
  • Go through any of these steps again if you think they would help.