How to Forgive Yourself

These steps towards forgiving yourself are inspired by a counseling session I recently observed (I’m a counselor in training). They’re based on Roxane Salyer Lulofs and Dudley Cahn’s book about conflict and communication.
In Forgiveness: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Get on With Your Life, Sidney B. Simon and Suzanne Simon offer practical exercises and tips for healing. You’ll learn the art and practice of self-forgiveness and self-acceptance, and give yourself the freedom you need to heal.

I’m a Master of Social Work (MSW) student in Vancouver, and I observed a counseling session with a counselor and a man recovering from heroin addiction. He said he has no problem forgiving people who hurt him, but he can’t forgive himself for the bad things he’s done. He hates himself. He asked why it’s so hard to learn how to forgive yourself. The counselor didn’t have the answer, but I’ve been wondering if it has to do with shame and guilt.

When we do something wrong, we should feel guilty. “I did a bad thing.” That’s appropriate guilt, and it motivates us to make amends and ask for forgiveness. Hopefully, we can forgive ourselves for making mistakes and doing the wrong thing. But, if we feel ashamed of ourselves (“I am a bad person” instead of “I did a bad thing”), then we might have a more difficult time forgiving ourselves.

Before you read these steps on forgiving yourself, think about the difference between guilt and shame. Do you hate yourself for what you did? That’s shame. Do you feel you made a mistake, used bad judgement, chose to do the wrong thing? That’s guilt.

How you move towards forgiveness depends on whether you’re dealing with guilt or shame. To learn more about the difference, read Overcoming Shame and Guilt.

10 Steps to Forgiving Yourself

Lulofs and Cahn describe nine elements of forgiving someone for doing something bad to you. Here there are below, more or less. I’ve spun them off into steps on how to forgive yourself.

Understand that forgiveness is a process

You won’t forgive yourself overnight because you feel really bad about what you did. Healing is always a process – and so is grieving the choice you made or the harm you caused. You need to trust that the process will happen, and you will get through it.

Recognize how you have been hurt

What did you do wrong? How did you hurt others; how did you hurt yourself. Face it, even if it feels terrible. Write down the choice you made, and how it affected people in your life. This is a painful step when you’re learning how to forgive yourself, but it’s necessary and healthy to face the truth.

Allow yourself to be angry about the hurt

You screwed up. You made a terrible choice. Get mad at yourself. Anger can be healthy, and cleansing…as long as it is expressed and dismissed.

Do not get stuck in the victim stage

Do you feel sorry for yourself because of what you did? If you’ve been beating yourself up for months or years, it’s time to move on. You can’t allow yourself to wallow in victimhood – you have to give yourself the gift of knowing how to forgive yourself. If you struggle with self-acceptance, read How to Accept Yourself.

Find people to support your forgiveness process

Have you confessed your “sin” to someone you trust? If you talk about it, you’ll bring light to the healing process. Walking in dark will make you stumble; walking in light and connecting with others will help you go farther and faster than you thought possible.

Accept that you can’t change what you did

This tip on how to forgive yourself isn’t from the book by Lulofs and Cahn. But, I want you to remember that you did what you did. It’s over, and you need to let it go.

Change how you see yourself

If you’re a perfectionist, you’ll have a hard time forgiving yourself because you want to be perfect. Instead, try to see yourself as human – having flaws and making mistakes. If you tend toward perfectionism, read How to Stop Being a Perfectionist.

Change how you see others

Others are capable of hurting people, capable of wrongdoing, capable of making mistakes and bad choices. You’re not inferior to them (this was a big step for me, when I finally choose to forgive myself) – but you’re not superior to them, either. We’re all in this together, just trying to survive.

Learn from your mistakes

Think about what you have learned from your choice and the outcome. How have you grown because of it? What would you do differently next time? Use your experience to make better, healthier choices in the future. Don’t waste it.

Dig deeper into resources on how to forgive yourself

how to forgive yourself

I don’t believe forgiving yourself is as easy as reading a blog post! Read a book like How To Forgive Ourselves Totally: Begin Again by Breaking Free from Past Mistakes – it’ll take you deeper into the process of self-forgiveness.

If you haven’t told anyone what you did, I invite you to share below. Don’t use your real name. Sometimes just “confessing” your mistakes and actions brings power and light to your life, and helps you as you move towards forgiving yourself. The first tip on how to forgive yourself might actually be to share your guilt and shame with others, to bring light, and to start healing.