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Blog Short #180: How to Forgive Yourself Even When You Think You Shouldn’t

Photo by chipstudio, Courtesy of iStock Photo

When you make a mistake or do something to cause harm to someone, how do you get over it? How can you forgive yourself?

If the error is small and doesn’t have a significant impact or is something easily corrected, you might not have a problem. You say you’re sorry, make things right, and move on.

But when you’ve hurt someone or done something that has a greater impact with lasting effects, it becomes harder to forgive yourself.

This is especially true when:

  1. The person or persons to whom you caused distress or harm aren’t willing to forgive you.
  2. The thing you did is irreparable. You can’t take it back or make good on it.
  3. The situation is complex and can’t be easily repaired.
  4. You brought a lot of negative attention to yourself, which you worry will linger for a long time or cause permanent damage to your reputation.

In all of those cases, it may be harder to forgive yourself. Yet, you still need to live with what you did and move along in your life.

Today, we’ll discuss the “4 Rs of Self-Forgiveness” and how they can be applied when you’re having difficulty overcoming something you did.

1. Responsibility

The first thing you need to do is accept that you’ve made a mistake or done something that has caused distress or harm to someone. That might sound easy, and sometimes it is, but not always.

Depending on what you’ve done, you may find it hard to fully accept the gravity of it.

Your first impulse might be to explain it away, blame it on other circumstances or people, or deny parts or all of it.

On the other hand, you might do the opposite and heap tons of guilt on yourself. You might also take responsibility for things you’re not responsible for or didn’t do.

For example, if the situation involves several people who contributed to the problem, one person might try to take all the blame and let the others off the hook. In this case, some or all of the guilt is misplaced.

There are two things to get clear on in this first step:

  1. What exactly did you do? Admit it to yourself and make sure that it’s something you’re responsible for. Say it out loud to confirm for yourself the extent of your fault in the situation.
  2. Explore your feelings about what happened. What are you feeling, and what narrative are you developing to describe it?

Dealing with your emotions can be stressful in this phase. You might find it difficult to accept what you did and feel very guilty about it. But that’s normal, and that’s where remorse comes in.

2. Remorse

True acceptance means feeling guilt and remorse for what you’ve done.

This is tricky because there’s a difference between real guilt and shame.

Shame is an attack on the self. It’s you pointing a finger at yourself with any number of negative feelings, such as disdain, hatred, anger, scorn, and sometimes contempt.

Guilt, or remorse, focuses on the other person and how they’re feeling as a result of what you’ve done. You feel sorry for how they’ve been affected and want to make it right.

This step is challenging because you might spin several narratives in your mind about how unworthy you are. That’s a natural response, especially if you caused significant suffering. Those feelings can serve a purpose initially if they motivate you to make amends.

However, it isn’t okay to linger indefinitely on negative feelings about yourself. At some point, you need to release them. It’s also essential to keep your focus on the wounded person and do what you can to repair the situation.

3. Restoration.

This step is where you can actively do your best to repair the damage and make amends. This might be an apology or something more involved, like fixing something you damaged, paying someone’s medical bills you hurt, rebuilding trust, or whatever is called for.

The best way to decide what to do is to take your cues from the person or persons who were hurt. What do they need to make things right?

A good approach is to ask how you can make amends that will be most helpful and far-reaching.

Sometimes, the person or people you hurt aren’t willing to talk to you or allow you to make amends.

When that’s the case, it’s best to accept their wishes. It might help to write out an apology even if you don’t give it to anyone. Doing that helps you increase your empathy for the other person and clarify the situation for yourself. It provides an opportunity to sort through your feelings and crystalize your remorse.

It’s a good exercise, even when you can make amends.

A note here:

When you make amends, give someone time to resolve their feelings about what happened. Don’t repair the situation solely to gain forgiveness—do it regardless. At the same time, you don’t need to go overboard and respond to excessive expectations that aren’t warranted.

4. Renewal

In the renewal phase, you begin to make peace with what you’ve done, forgive yourself, approach yourself with compassion and respect, and let go.

An essential part of this process is clarifying what you’ve learned from the situation and what you will or will not do going forward to prevent a recurrence.

Truly making amends means not repeating the behavior. You can’t forgive yourself if you don’t learn from it and avoid doing the same thing again. Genuine remorse includes this step.

The good thing is that being clear on what you’ve learned helps you find a place for it and strengthens your resolve to make changes in the future. It also allows you to let go of continued self-recrimination that serves no purpose.

What if what I did was terrible and can’t be repaired?

It feels wrong to forgive yourself in a situation like this, but you must still work at it.

Part of making amends is living with mistakes, even serious ones.

When you can’t take back what you did, and the impact is significant, you won’t forget it. That’s to be expected. Self-forgiveness, especially in these cases, doesn’t mean that you ever lose your remorse for what happened, but it does mean that you understand that you can’t keep punishing yourself forever for it.

It’s humbling but in a good way. You recognize the frailty of being human and sometimes making bad decisions or behaving in ways you wish you hadn’t.

Self-forgiveness is a process of clarifying your values, becoming more self-aware, and increasing your capacity for empathy and compassion.

When you can move past that point between self-flagellation and self-forgiveness, you energize yourself to take on new behaviors or pursuits that are part of making amends.

That happens even when you can’t directly repair things. You might become kinder, more considerate, thoughtful, less impulsive, a better team player, or engage in new activities that help others. It can be a turning point in your life.

Generally, you get many chances to improve your behavior as future situations occur. These situations may not be exactly the same, but they involve similar values or circumstances so that you can make better choices the second time around.

These new opportunities are gifts, so take advantage of them and forgive yourself for past transgressions.

Make something better out of something regrettable – that’s the whole point.

Let’s end with one of my favorite quotes by Matt Haig from The Comfort Book:

Imagine forgiving yourself completely. The goals you didn’t reach. The mistakes you made. Instead of locking those flaws inside to define and repeat yourself, imagine letting your past float through your present and away like air through a window, freshening a room. Imagine that.

That’s all for today!

Have a great week!

All my best,


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