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5 Steps for Self-Forgiveness – and Why It Matters

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness recently. Part of it was listening to a Stuff You Should Know podcast episode about forgiveness, and I also read Four Steps to Forgiveness by William Fergus Martin, both of which I found very interesting.

But to be honest, I’ve struggled with the idea of forgiveness. I know in my head that it’s not about condoning the other person’s behavior or absolving them of any responsibility, that it’s really about the forgiver being able to let go and move on with their lives. Emotionally, though, I’m not quite there.

That being said, I can wholeheartedly accept the importance of self-forgiveness.

After all, not forgiving yourself only increases your pain. You end up punishing yourself, and you can become overwhelmed by feelings of shame and guilt. This can negatively impact your physical and emotional health, and it doesn’t in any way help you learn from what’s happened.

This doesn’t mean self-forgiveness is easy, of course. It’s difficult to look at our mistakes head-on. You may also worry that forgiving yourself condones what you did, but that’s not the case.

Forgiving yourself means you accept what you did but want to move on, and the only way to do that is by letting go of the emotions associated with what happened.

When you do this, you’ll find that you can be more compassionate with yourself – and possibly others. You won’t be weighed down by shame and resentment. Instead, you’ll experience improved self-esteem and will be able to move towards new goals in life. You may also be able to eat more mindfully because you’ll have renewed self-confidence and know you’re capable of doing important inner work.

If you want to give self-forgiveness a try, here are five steps you can take.

1: Acknowledge your feelings

The first step is to let yourself truly acknowledge your emotions. Set aside time to look at and name what you’re feeling about your past actions.

Shame? Regret? Guilt? Responsibility? Anger? Something else?

Confronting these types of feelings can be hard, but you won’t be able to move forward until you acknowledge them.

2: Take responsibility

When you examine your feelings and the actions that caused them, your first inclination may be to pass judgment. This is particularly true if you have perfectionist tendencies and often judge yourself harshly if you don’t live up to those standards.

But try to let go of the judgment and simply accept responsibility. You made a mistake, and if you want to avoid similar mistakes in the future, you need to understand what happened earlier.

3: Apologize

Once you’ve recognized your role in what happened, you need to apologize to those who were hurt – even if that person was you. The apology should be sincere, without offering excuses, and explaining what you intend to do differently moving forward.

Sometimes, though, you may not be able to apologize to the person you’ve hurt, if you’ve lost touch with them or they’ve passed away. In those cases, try writing your apology. That way, even though the other person can’t read it, you’ve at least gotten it out of your system and will be less likely to dwell on it.

4: Make changes

The best way to make amends and recover from mistakes is to learn from them and decide what you’ll do differently moving forward.

For example, if you spoke too quickly and said something you regretted, you could practice pausing before responding to someone. If you got in a bad relationship, you could identify some warning signs to look for next time. If you interfered in someone else’s life, you could work on keeping healthy boundaries.

This doesn’t guarantee that you won’t make the same mistake again, but it will be much less likely.

5: Repeat as needed

And finally, learning to forgive yourself takes time. You may not be able to do it right away or get everything right the first time.

That’s okay. This isn’t a race. Take the time you need to go through the steps again – and again if needed – until you’ve gotten to the result you want.

Self-forgiveness has many benefits

Going through the steps to forgive yourself can be difficult, but it’s well worth it.

You’ll feel better, both physically and emotionally, and you’ll have learned some valuable lessons that you can apply moving forward. And even when you make mistakes in the future, you’ll have more self-compassion and will be able to move past them more easily.


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