How to Forgive Yourself

I’ve learned a valuable skill recently. It’s a skill that allows me to let go, find the joy in everyday moments, and move forward with confidence. The skill is self-forgiveness.

Self-forgiveness was a recent skill I learned. While I was confident and hopeful about my future, I couldn’t forgive myself for past “mistakes” I’ve made.

After exploring joy, however, I discovered that you can’t take care of a person you can’t forgive.

If I wanted to pursue hope and joy with my life, I needed to first learn how to forgive myself so I could bring forth the best possible version of myself. 

This is why forgiving yourself is such a critical skill: without it, you can’t have joy. And without joy, you can’t build the best version of yourself.

Self-forgiveness can help you:

  • Silence the inner-critic in your head.
  • Let go of past mistakes and focus on the present and future instead.
  • Stop self-sabotaging your progress by beating yourself up on every little mistake you make toward your goal.
  • Release the fear of failure.
  • Adopt a different story about yourself and your value in the world.

Since self-forgiveness is foundational for the work of joy, here are four pointers to help you forgive yourself.

1. Gain as much awareness as you can.

Self-criticism is often a default reaction we have to stressors. We automatically jump to beating ourselves up when we make a mistake. But this reaction was triggered by something specific. 

Exploring the thoughts and stressors triggering your self-criticism can help you take one step closer to forgiveness. You can also explore where this negative thought came from. Has it shown up in your life before? When did it first enter your story?

The more language and understanding you add to the internal mechanisms of your self-criticism, the more equipped you’ll be to forgive yourself.

A tool to help you in this process is the Negativity Cycle and the concept of Negative Defaults. Think through the stressors that trigger negative thoughts and what emotions they produce. You’ll find that your self-criticism is actually a Pleasure on the cycle because it shrinks you and doesn’t force you to do anything to fix the situation. Once you explore the stressors and thoughts powering your self-criticism, then try the other solutions presented in this article.

2. Practice not passing judgment on your mistakes.

When we were babies, we had a relentless, curious spirit. We would fall several times before learning how to walk, but we wouldn’t perceive this as failure. We would get back up. 

But as we grew older, we started noticing and reflecting upon the reactions our actions produced. As our models passed judgments on our mistakes, so did we. 

The reactions we receive for our mistakes condition us in one way or the other. They can condition us to be more self-critical of ourselves, or condition us to be more self-forgiving.

If you realize that your self-criticism is a result of your parents responding poorly to your failures, the first step toward self-forgiveness is forgiving them. They were most likely doing the best they could with the resources they had.

Secondly, you can practice not passing judgment on your mistakes. 

In her book, Grit, Angela Duckworth describes how teachers should model emotion-free mistakes for children.1 This is when you make a mistake but model not reacting to it with negative emotions. 

You too can practice emotion-free mistakes. And as you do, you start to break the cycle of self-criticism. 

3. Speak to the part you can’t forgive. 

Imagine not forgiving a child who didn’t know what they were doing. You couldn’t do it.

The irony is, this is what most of us do when we can’t forgive ourselves for past mistakes. This is also what we do when we punish ourselves for minor errors we make today. We are being critical of the child inside us who just wanted to try something.

It helps people to imagine speaking to the part they can’t forgive about themselves. If it is your teenage self who made a mistake, imagine talking with that teenager on the couch next to you. If it is yourself who made a mistake at work last week, talk to that version of yourself and practice some empathy with him/her. 

Doing this can help separate yourself from what happened and build some self-compassion.

4. Bring yourself back to the present.

Oftentimes when we can’t forgive ourselves, we get dragged back to the past. We replay the situation again in our minds, and we stay in that space. 

When this happens, it’s helpful to bring yourself back to the present. Remind yourself that what happened has already happened. You don’t have control over that moment anymore, but you have control over this moment. 

Bringing yourself back to the present can be helpful calming your negative emotions too. If you can distract yourself with an activity, then soon the brain will steer itself away from a negative emotional response. 

While this isn’t so much forgiving yourself for what happened, it is loosening the effect of mistakes on you so they don’t destroy your present.

Forgive Yourself Often

The road to joy is paved with forgiveness. We can’t actually journey to more joy in our lives if we continue to be so critical of every backward step we make. This is how we self-sabotage our efforts.

If we make mistakes, we need a default reaction of forgiveness. As we learn to forgive ourselves, we learn how to increase our hope, and therefore, our joy. 

1. Duckworth, Angela. Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner, 2018. Pg. 141.

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