Guilt is good. Yes! Guilt actually encourages people to have more empathy for others, to take corrective action, and to improve themselves. Self-forgiveness after guilt is self-essential to esteem, which is key to enjoying life and relationships. Yet, for many, self-acceptance remains elusive because of unhealthy guilt.
Unhealthy guilt causes anger and resentment, not only at yourself but toward others in order to justify your actions. Anger, resentment, and guilt sap your energy, cause depression and illness, and prevent success, pleasure, and fulfilling relationships. They keep you stuck in the past and prevent you from moving forward.
You may feel guilty not only for your actions but also for your thoughts, for your feelings or for lack of feelings. Although irrational, you might feel guilty for someone else’s thoughts, attributes, feelings, and actions. It’s not unusual for people to feel guilty for leaving their faith or not meeting their parents’ expectations.
Forgiveness is still the answer, says Everett L. Worthington Jr., Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“A lot of people struggle with self-condemnation or self-blame because they’ve either done something they feel was wrong and they feel guilty, or because they feel that they’re wrong or defective in some way and they feel a sense of shame,” says Worthington.
Of course, not all instances of self-blame are harmful. “There’s a reason we feel negative when we make a mistake,” says Worthington. The five minutes of frustration you feel after taking the wrong exit off the highway? It’s a cue to pay more attention the next time you’re driving.
But self-blame is worth addressing when your negative feelings about a big misstep in your life, or a series of smaller ones, become chronic. Worthington calls this “unforgiveness towards oneself,” or the inability to move forward from anger or pain from a past mistake, delaying any sense of closure.
Why Is It So Hard to Forgive & Accept Yourself?
The easiest answer I can think of is that we confuse approving of ourselves with never changing, never improving and never getting better or getting what we want in life. That’s just preposterous. What do they have to do with each other? Nothing.
Repeat and see for yourself: I accept myself. I love myself. I forgive myself for what I didn’t know until I learned it.
So I began to experiment with a different approach to life: One that comes from a place of love and approval for myself first. One that does not allow for pessimism, criticism, negative thinking and toxic relationships. One that opens me to possibilities and expands the horizon instead of closing the curtains and blocking the abundance.
Understanding why self-forgiveness is difficult can give us clues to make it easier:
“God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won’t.” – Alfred Korzybski
When we’ve done something “wrong,” we register it in our nervous system. If we try to forgive ourselves for something without releasing the underlying emotion or belief we’ve attached to it, the forgiveness just doesn’t take. No matter how hard you try to forgive, you continue to beat yourself up for whatever happened— because your nervous system tells you to!
“Forgiveness means letting go of the past.” – Gerald Jampolsky
When we try to forgive ourselves, we’re trying to release something that feels like it is part of us. We’re releasing who we were in the moment that we did whatever it was. When we forgive what someone else has done, in a sense it feels easier. We’re releasing a part of our past that isn’t essentially who we are—unless we’ve told the story of that hurt so frequently that we’ve built our identity around it! In that case, it becomes hard to forgive the other person because the transgression and our reaction have become central to how we define ourselves.
“The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them—especially not from yourself.” – Daniel Dennett
To many of us, seeing ourselves as flawed feels vulnerable and even scary. We’re basically wired to survive, and beings that make too many mistakes typically get ousted from the gene pool! Even our educational system tells us that anything that is not “right,” is “bad” and deserves some form of punishment. So we try to avoid mistakes at all costs, and when we do make a misstep, our first impulse is to hide it.
Ways to Forgive & Accept Yourself
Receive Forgiveness from the Universe.
Take a step back and look at the big picture, not just those guilt-inspiring moments of your life. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and that you, too, deserve to be forgiven.
Giving past failures less time and attention is one way to help move forward. But you also need to examine the expectations and standards you hold for yourself. If you would forgive a friend for something, why hold a higher bar to clear for yourself?
Set an intention.
“Self-acceptance begins with intention,” according to psychotherapist Jeffrey Sumber, MA. “It is vital that we set an intention for ourselves that we are willing to shift paradigms from a world of blame, doubt and shame to a world of allowance, tolerance, acceptance and trust,” he said. This intention acknowledges that self-loathing simply doesn’t lead to a satisfying life. “If I set my intention that a life with self-acceptance is far better than a life of self-hatred then I begin a chain reaction within my being geared to a life of peace,” Sumber said.
Act Out a Ritual of Self-Forgiveness.
Recall the hurt this situation has caused. Then actually give yourself the empathy you would give someone else, along with an altruistic gift of self-forgiveness. It may help to go through a ritual of forgiveness. Write yourself a letter, give yourself the length of a hike to process your feelings one final time, or create a tangible expression of the painful experience, such as a sculpture in the sand or a pile of rocks in your garden, to commit to that self-forgiveness. Put time into this act and decide that when you are done, you’ll really let it go.
Even after you’ve forgiven yourself, you may have a hard time coming to terms with your past mistakes. Accept what you can’t change. Remind yourself that actions don’t define who you are. Getting stuck in the past makes it impossible to move forward to a better future.
Shush your inner critic.
Many people equate their inner critic with a voice of reason. They think their inner critic is simply speaking the truth. But if you wouldn’t say it to a loved one, it’s not honesty or sincerity. It’s unwarranted — and harsh — judgment.
To quiet your inner critic, Marter suggested choosing a realistic mantra. “I believe in the power of mantra and encourage clients to select a mantra that is normalizing, calming and encouraging during times when the inner critic rears its ugly head,” she said. For example, you could use: “I am only human, I am doing the best that I can and that is all I can do,” she said.
As Marter said, “Our mistakes and our imperfections are not bad or wrong or failures–they are the fingerprints of humanity and opportunities for learning, healing, and growth.”
Resolve to Live with More Care.
We all make mistakes. By vowing not to repeat them, you’ll have an easier time making amends with what’s been done while being hopeful about what’s to come.
Be kind to yourself.
Many people are hesitant to show even a shred of self-kindness because they see it as selfish or undeserved. But the key to self-compassion is “to understand that weakness and frailty are part of the human experience,” according to Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist, and author of Living with Depression. “Coming to accept who you are involves loving yourself because of your flaws, not in spite of them,” she said.
Writing down your thoughts will help you not only to release that pent up emotions but to let yourself see your mistakes from another perspective. Every time you feel guilty jots it down in a journal. Track the way you feel and why so. Get to understand the source of your guilt better and you will soon learn to distance yourself from it.
Self forgiveness is one of the most precious gifts we can give to ourselves. A gift that will not only will bring peace into our hearts, but it will also transform our lives and the lives of those we come in contact with.
“Inner peace can be reached only when we practice forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past, and is therefore the means of correcting our misperceptions.” ~ Gerald Jampolsky
To give yourself the gift of self-forgiveness is to make room in your heart for love, allowing yourself to receive love from yourself and from those around you.
Being grateful—or having gratitude—for the past can positively affect your future. Research has shown that people who think about the past in an optimistic way have increased capacity for happiness.
You might experience a variety of feelings when thinking about the past—from pride, satisfaction and contentment to bitterness and anger. These feelings are all actually controlled by your memories, which you can manage.
If you have bad memories, you might be able to change them to neutral or good feelings by challenging your thinking or through forgiveness.