A reader wrote me recently with the following question:
How do I forgive myself? I made a pretty bad decision years ago—one that really hurt a person I love. They’ve since forgiven me but I just can’t seem to forgive myself. I want to be free of this guilt and shame I feel but I just can’t seem to let it go… Any tips?
This is a pretty common dilemma and one that I dealt with dozens of times in my work as a therapist.
Of course, everybody’s situation is unique. And there are certainly no magic bullet solutions to something as nuanced as self-forgiveness.
But there are a few big ideas that I’ve found really helpful when it comes to forgiving yourself and moving on from a mistake in the past.
1. Validate your bad decision compassionately
If you want to achieve self-forgiveness, you must practice self-compassion. There’s just no way around this.
In fact, in my experience, the people who struggle most to forgive themselves are usually the same people who struggle the most with self-compassion more generally.
But the idea of practicing self-compassion can be a little intimidating to a lot of folks.
To make it a little less overwhelming—and more practical—there’s one particular part of self-compassion that’s relatively easy to do and will go a long way toward helping you forgive yourself:
Validate your bad decision.
Psychologically, to validate something means to tell yourself that it makes sense on some level, even if ultimately it isn’t correct, desirable, good, etc.
- You can validate a difficult emotion like anxiety: I really hate feeling anxious. But it’s not surprising that I’m feeling this way since I’ve spent the last half hour worrying. I mean, who wouldn’t feel anxious after that much worry? In other words, right or wrong, painful or pleasurable, it makes sense that you feel anxious given all your worry. That’s emotional validation.
- You can validate someone else’s mistake. For example: You agree that your coworker forgetting to set an alarm and sleeping through a meeting is not good. But you can still say something like: That’s tough. But you know, stuff like that happens to all of us sometimes. And it’s not totally surprising that you forgot to set an alarm given that you were up all night with your sick kid. Again, the outcome isn’t ideal—and it’s not a denial that ultimately they are responsible for getting to work on time—it’s simply acknowledging that it does make some sense that they forgot to set an alarm.
Validating your own mistakes just means acknowledging that—however bad—your mistakes make sense on some level. There are reasons why they happened, even if they’re not “good” ones.
In fact, there’s a fair chance that you’re already quite good at being validating of other people. So it’s really just a matter of remembering that it’s okay to do it to yourself.
- Suppose you’re trying to forgive yourself for that hurtful comment you made to your spouse the other day. Validating the mistake might look like: That was wrong and I know it hurt him. But I was angry and said it impulsively. We all say things we don’t mean sometimes, especially when we’re stressed out like I was yesterday because of all the drama at work over the last couple weeks.
- Or let’s say you’re trying to forgive yourself for missing your kid’s gymnastics performance even though you told him you’d “definitely” be there. Validating that mistake might look like: In the future, I shouldn’t make promises that I can’t keep. I know he was hurt and disappointed. But there was no way I could have predicted that crash on the freeway and all the traffic it caused.
- Or maybe you’re struggling to forgive yourself for something bigger, like infidelity in your marriage. Validation might look something like: I know it was wrong. Full stop. And while there aren’t any good excuses for what I did, there are some reasons why I ended up making that decision… I’ve been pretty unhappy in our marriage for a while now but haven’t brought it up. That could very well have something to do with it. Also, nobody makes good decisions when they’re drunk. Part of the issue here, I think, is that I need to get a handle on my drinking and whatever issues are driving it.
Here’s another way to think about it:
If you struggle with self-forgiveness, there’s a good chance it’s because you’ve been overly focused on the effects of your mistake—both in terms of other people (who you wronged and how it affects them) and yourself (how guilty, ashamed, etc. they feel as a result).
Validation is about compassionately acknowledging the causes of your mistake—that there were reasons why you made the decision you did. And even if in hindsight those reasons weren’t good, on some level, it’s probably understandable.
Almost nobody does something wrong purely for spite or malice. We end up making bad decisions because we’re conflicted internally and the wrong side wins.
Welcome to being a human being.
If you want to finally forgive yourself and move on, start by compassionately exploring why you made the decision you did—which is probably what you would do for a good friend who was in your shoes.
But keep this in mind… when it comes to validation, I recommend doing one or two deep dives on it exploring the reasons why it might have happened. If possible, best to do this in a structured, intentional way—while journaling, for example, or with a therapist or counselor.
After that, validation should be brief. An old memory pops up and reminds you of that time you did X thing you’re ashamed of. So, spend 10 seconds validating it and then move on. No need to dwell on it.
2. Just because you have a thought doesn’t mean you need to keep thinking it
Forgiveness is an action, not a feeling.
And the primary way you do forgiveness—with others or ourselves—is to let go of the tendency to dwell on or ruminate about the mistake in the past.
- Let’s say that, in a fit of anger, you told your parents that you hated them and that they were awful parents.
- In hindsight, you deeply regret saying this and feel terribly guilty. Partly because it’s not completely true—you do feel angry at them, and they did make some mistakes as parents, but to say that you hate them and that they were terrible parents just isn’t accurate. But you also feel bad because it was cruel and obviously hurt them.
- It’s been five years since that episode. You’ve apologized several times. They’ve forgiven you and apologized for their part in the argument. But you still feel guilty… Memories of the fight continue to pop up from time to time prompting a wave of shame and guilt. And in fact, almost every time you see them or interact with them, you think about that fight and the cruel things you said and feel guilty. Often, it ruins your entire day because you can’t shake the feeling.
So, how do you forgive yourself and move on?
First of all, you must come to grips with this idea:
Forgiveness is not primarily about feeling differently—it’s about acting differently.
Think about it… When you forgive someone else, you don’t say some magic words and cast a spell that miraculously makes their guilt disappear. You can’t control how they feel. All you can control is what you do.
So, when you forgive someone, what you’re really doing is making the choice to let the mistake or injustice go—both in the way you interact with and behave toward that person, but also in your own mind—in what you choose to think about.
Suppose you say you forgive someone, they feel better, but then you secretly continue to hold it against them by constantly ruminating on what happened and how wrong they were… Is that forgiveness? No, obviously not. Again, forgiveness is about what you do (and don’t do).
Now, just flip the process around and apply it to yourself:
- Forgiveness isn’t primarily about feeling less guilty or sad. That’s not something you can control.
- It’s also not about whether that event continues to come to mind from time to time. If you’re neurologically healthy, old memories will pop into your consciousness sometimes—especially impactful, emotionally-charged memories. Again, not something you can control.
- The only thing you can control—the only thing you can do to forgive yourself—is to mentally let go of those memories and thoughts when they do arise.
Now, letting go of those thoughts and memories doesn’t mean suppressing them or impulsively trying to distract yourself from them—that will only make them more frequent and intense.
Letting go of those thoughts and memories means noticing when they arise, acknowledging them compassionately, and then choosing to refocus your attention and get on with your life.
Forgiveness is about taking control of your attention and your behavior.
It means acknowledging that you can’t control what pops into your mind but you can control whether you continue to focus on it or not…
- You can’t control whether a memory pops into mind. But you can control whether you choose to spend 20 minutes replaying that memory in your head.
- You can’t control whether a thought about what you should have done instead pops into your head. But you can control whether you choose to continue thinking about it or whether you let it go and focus on something else.
Now, it’s not easy. But that is the task of self-forgiveness.
And the only way to truly forgive yourself—and ultimately feel more at peace—is to stop ruminating and get on with your life.
Which brings us to the final point…
3. Forgiveness is about your future, not your past.
People think they need to forgive themselves in order to move on. But really it’s the other way around…
You can only forgive yourself once you decide to move on.
Let’s unpack that a bit.
On a very fundamental level, forgiveness is about control. People who struggle to forgive themselves tend to be overly focused on trying to control things that they can’t—how they feel, what they think, which memories come up, which people show up to the party and trigger them, etc.
The problem is when you expend all that energy trying to control something you can’t, you have very little left over to control the things you can.
- If you spend all your energy obsessively replaying a mistake from the past in a vain attempt to figure out how you could have done it differently, you’re going to be so exhausted and upset by all the painful emotion that obsessing generates that your ability to refocus your attention onto something productive (to let go) is going to be next to nothing.
- If you spend all your energy trying to avoid people or situations that might trigger memories of your big mistake in the past, you deprive yourself of the opportunity to practice acknowledging difficult thoughts and feelings, accepting them, and then shifting your attention off of them.
Forgiving yourself is about acknowledging that you can’t control the past. You really did do something bad and you cannot change that. Period.
What you can control—at least to some degree—is your future. And that starts, of course, with the actions you choose to take in the present.
You can’t let go and forgive yourself if you’re constantly latching on to things from the past and dwelling on them over and over and over again. Not only will you continue to feel worse and worse, but you will be spending an increasingly big chunk of your life literally living in the past.
In my experience, the people who are most successful at self-forgiveness are the ones who are able to keep their focus and attention in the present and future.
Of course, that’s not to say that you should never reflect on the past. If you’ve done something wrong you definitely should make some time to reflect on that, make amends, try and learn from it, etc.
But people who struggle to forgive themselves are usually WAY beyond that point. All that dwelling in the past isn’t doing you or anyone else any good. In fact, it’s actively harmful to you—and most likely your relationships as well.
In the long run, when you get in the habit of acknowledging the pain of the past without getting stuck on it, your brain eventually gets the message that this thing is over and done with. And as a result, it stops bugging you with it as much and your emotional reactions become increasingly less intense.
But when you continue to keep your attention in the past, you teach your brain the opposite lesson: this thing is still big and important so keep reminding me of it in the future.
So if you really want to forgive yourself (and feel forgiven), reflect, make amends, and then move on—however you happen to feel. Focus on your values and what really matters to you and get to work living your life instead of replaying ancient history.
All You Need to Know
If you want to forgive yourself, keep these tips in mind:
- There’s no self-forgiveness without self-compassion. One of the best ways to be compassionate with yourself is to practice validating your mistakes rather than judging them or ruminating on them.
- Forgiveness is an action, not a feeling. Just because a thought or memory of a mistake pops into mind doesn’t mean you have to continue thinking about it. Self-forgiveness is about taking control over your attention and your behavior and letting go of thoughts, emotions, and memories that you can’t control.
- Forgiveness is about your future, not your past. You don’t need to forgive yourself in order to move on—you need to move on in order to forgive yourself.