As humans, we are going to make mistakes and say or do stupid things. Humans have a natural inclination to be good and to become better than we are currently. It is an innate quality in human nature to want to improve. It doesn’t always mean we do improve because that takes work and sometimes we just don’t want to put the work in because it’s hard or painful. Forgiving yourself is one of those things that will take effort and it will require you to fully experience the pain that results from poor choices but you will be so so so much happier in the end if you learn to forgive yourself.
Sometimes our mistakes are small. Heck, sometimes they aren’t even mistakes but things that we feel we should have done better. And sometimes, we make whoppers of mistakes that hurt ourselves and the people around us. You can (and need to) ask for forgiveness when your choices negatively impact others but you also need to forgive yourself. You are here, on Earth, to experience joy. The sadness we sometimes feel in life helps us fully appreciate the joys of life. So, let’s learn from our mistakes, be kind to ourselves, and move forward in life with more wisdom, peace, and joy.
What does it mean to forgive yourself?
Learning to forgive yourself is a bit of an art form. Or a habit. Either way, it’s a skill that we must consciously learn. The key to forgiving yourself and moving forward is to 1) experience the emotional consequences of your choices and 2) understand your self-worth.
Much like forgiving others, you need to process the grief that accompanies decisions you regret. You can’t go around, over, or under the emotions that result from our decisions. You also can’t pack them up in a pretty suitcase and stuff it in the back of your closet; if you try, the emotions will come out to haunt you. They demand attention. As John Greene wrote in The Fault in Our Stars, pain demands to be felt. And there is usually pain to be felt when you make a decision you regret. Sometimes there will be a lot of pain and sometimes it’ll be just a little pain. Give yourself permission to feel the pain, to cry, to yell, to do whatever you need to do to feel the pain. Once you go through the pain (remember, not over, under, or around but through), you will find peace and joy on the other side.
If you can imagine how you view your self-worth on a continuum, there will be abusive self-talk on one end and excuses and avoidance on the other end. One extreme is someone who simply cannot move past even the simplest mistakes they make and repeatedly pound themselves with negative, hurtful, destructive self-talk. On the other extreme is someone who is supremely insecure and covers it with excuses that they are “only human” and refuse to take responsibility for themselves, their actions, and their life.
So if self-worth is on a continuum and both extremes are less than ideal, where do you want to land on the continuum? You need to find the sweet spot where you can take responsibility for your actions, recognize when your actions are not appropriate, and take the steps necessary to remedy the consequences of your actions with others who were affected all while being kind and loving toward yourself.
So what about the times we just do something stupid?
We like to beat ourselves up over the stupid things we said or did that no one else even noticed or cared about. Maybe we said something embarrassing to the guy or gal we like. Maybe we used a word incorrectly in an important work document. Maybe we tried too hard to be funny in a presentation and ended up making everyone feel awkward. People may have felt a little awkward when your jokes didn’t make sense or possibly annoyed that they had to fix your spelling again but in the end, they just move on. I promise you, they are not wasting their energy worrying about what you said or did because they have other things to worry about. So do you…much more important things to worry about. Things that matter. Things that make a difference in your world. Yet, we spend so much of our time and energy replaying these little scenes over and over and over in our head, telling ourselves, “how could I be so stupid?”
You are not your mistakes. You are so much more and your worth as a human does not change based on the mistakes you’ve made. If someone offered you a crisp, clean $100 bill, would you take it? What if they crumpled up the dollar bill, dropped in a pile of mud, stepped on it, and then tried to hand it to you? Would you still take it? Unless you are an extreme germ-a-phobe, you wouldn’t even hesitate to take the $100 bill. Why? Because you know the mud can be washed off and it can be a clean bill again. The bill could even be ironed if you really wanted it to be crisp again. You are the same way. When you refuse to forgive yourself the mistakes you make, you are refusing to wash your $100 bill. You are insisting on carrying a bunch of mud around with you that clouds your judgement and ability to live joyfully.
So, how do you forgive yourself?
- Recognize the need to forgive yourself. Most often the need to forgive yourself is evident in how you talk to yourself in your head. Are there negative things you keep telling yourself? Is there a situation you keep reliving? Are there consequences from your decisions that you haven’t dealt with? Pay attention to what you are telling yourself and what you are re-living to discover how you have wronged yourself.
- Experience the consequential emotions of your decision. Those emotions could be sadness, anger (which is a secondary emotion of hurt or fear), frustration, guilt, anxiety, and/or shame. You can work through these emotions by writing in a journal or talking to someone you trust. This helps you label your emotions and understand them better, which helps us process the emotion so it no longer feels as strong or as bad.
- Make amends with anyone affected by your decision. If your decision hurt someone around you, you need to remedy that. Otherwise, you won’t be able to fully forgive yourself because someone else’s hurt will be lingering over you. You won’t always be able to make the situation right again but a sincere apology where the affected individual knows you are genuinely sorry for hurting them will suffice.
- Stop re-living the moment. When you find the memory of the painful event creeping in on you, remind yourself (verbally if needed) that you are a valuable human, you made a mistake but you can be better and will do your darnedest to try. You may have done a bad thing but that does not mean you yourself are bad. You are good. You are trying. You are worthy to continue in love and to continue doing your best to be just a little better.
Remember: You are good. You deserve the peace that comes from forgiving yourself. You can do this.
PC: Carolyn Laggatuta