Certainly, you’ve had to forgive other people in your life for hurting you. But what have you done to yourself that you still feel hurt about? What didn’t you do? What opportunity didn’t you take that you are still angry at yourself about? How did you act that time that still makes you feel ashamed? You have forgiven others, now you need to forgive yourself. Holding on to these feelings creates an internal firestorm of hate, resentment and lack. Self-forgiveness means letting it all go, freeing ourselves from the chains of past transgressions that still weigh on our hearts. These feelings of anger and resentment are often experienced as a result of 1) actions we took that were not in alignment with our values creating feelings of shame and/or disgust, or 2) actions we didn’t take that we wished we had taken creating feelings of regret and/or unworthiness. When we feel these things, we can sometimes hold on to them and allow them to simmer inside ourselves. Dr. Brene Brown has studied shame for decades, and her research shows that beating ourselves up and staying in shame has detrimental consequences. It’s important to note that Dr. Brown says there’s a big difference between guilt and shame. She says guilt focuses on behaviors and says “I did something bad” while shame focuses on the individual and says “I am bad.” Guilt, she says, leads to personal growth through amended behaviors, while shame leads to self-hatred and self-destructive behaviors. Shame is an intense global feeling of inadequacy, inferiority, or self-loathing.
List in your journal any actions you have taken for which you cannot forgive yourself that have caused you to feel shame and/or disgust. Be specific.
List in your journal actions you have not taken for which you cannot forgive yourself that have caused you to have feelings of regret and/or unworthiness. Be specific.
Underlying Issues Associated with Lack of Self-forgiveness
Self-forgiveness is an important topic to address, because our internal environment greatly impacts our external environment. Meaning how we feel about ourselves impacts how we treat ourselves both physically and emotionally as well as how we treat others. Many of our internal struggles arise from dealing with our own regrets and disappointments for actions we have taken (or have not taken) in our lives. We tend to be our own worst enemy with our internal critic that analyzes our every thought and action. This internal battle often leads to feelings of guilt and shame, which negatively impact our sense of self worth. And carrying around the shame and guilt created by harboring our mistakes is detrimental to our physical health and our emotional wellbeing.
Studies have shown that unforgiveness is stressful and is associated with physical and emotional ill health. One study found that unforgiving responses of blame, anger, and hostility are associated with heart disease and premature death.
Physical and Emotional Benefits of Forgiveness
Forgiveness reduces the stress of unforgiveness, meaning we become unburdened by the energy it takes to continue to marinate in something that has already taken place and that we can’t change. What’s more, research shows forgiveness positively affects the immune system at the cellular and the neuro-endocrine levels as well as the central nervous system processes. In the same way, according to studies, the positive emotions related to forgiveness such as empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love help to reduce the negative emotions of unforgiveness. These feelings then transform into the inner peace we need and want.
There is also evidence that forgiving people may have more social support and might have less stressful marriages, and forgiveness might be related to personality traits that are related to health such as higher empathy, and lower rumination. Forgiveness also might be related to relationship skills, creating more robust emotional-regulation strategies, which directly correlates to a life of inner balance and harmony.
The Process of Self-forgiveness
Everyone makes mistakes, but it’s vital that we learn from these errors, let go of the negative feelings we have towards ourselves, move forward, and forgive ourselves. This can be easier said than done, but it’s well worth the effort!
Dr. Fred Luskin, Psychologist and Co-Director of the Stanford-Northern Ireland HOPE Project, provides the following nine steps to self-forgiveness:
Know exactly how you feel about what you did. Be able to articulate the specific wrong you have committed and the harm it caused. Tell a couple of trusted people about your experience and about your feelings.
Understand forgiveness. Forgiveness enables you to feel at peace even though you did things you wished you had not. You do not have to reconcile with the person you have hurt and what you did may not be OK. Still you can make peace with yourself.
Self forgiveness can be defined as the recognition that everyone including yourself makes mistakes, that blame and shame can be replaced by making amends and developing better ways to behave, and that your grievance story can be changed and relinquished.
Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are experiencing right now, not what you did two minutes or ten years ago.
At the moment that you feel upset, practice stress management by breathing slowly into and out of your belly while focusing on someone you love.
Give up demanding things from yourself or your life that did not happen. Recognize the “unenforceable rules” you have for how you should have behaved. Remind yourself that every single human being makes mistakes. Remind yourself that no one is a failure: Each of us is only someone who was unable to do something correctly at a particular place and time.
If you have hurt others or yourself instead of mentally replaying the hurt look for ways to sincerely apologize, make amends where possible and when necessary change your behaviors so you won’t make the same mistake again.
Appreciate your good points. Take time out of each day to acknowledge the kind and loving things you do.
Change your grievance story of failure and regret to reflect your heroic choice to learn, grow and forgive yourself.
We must conduct a full study of our own selves and what we might be holding on to and why. Take time for this self examination. Go over the course of your life and look for things you have experienced, felt, or did, that you can’t forgive yourself for. Examine each of these items fully and try to look at them a different way. Try to divert off of that well worn path of what you tell yourself about who you are and how you feel. You can feel anything you want to and release anything you need to. Remember that the human experience involves flaws, setbacks and errors. And many successful people believe that it’s through our mistakes that we learn and grow. Think about it this way, we would never scold a toddler for falling down when they are learning to walk, yet we beat ourselves up for metaphorically falling down all the time. While we cannot go back in time and change the past, we can make amends and move forward with a new understanding of how to act differently in the future. Self-forgiveness is about offering compassion to your past self, the self that made the mistake, and paving the way for a better future.
Journal about your experience of this life examination. This exercise helps cultivate self-compassion and provides the opportunity to visualize a better “future self.”
Best Possible Self
Take time to imagine your life in the future. Consider all relevant areas of your life, such as your career, academic work, relationships, hobbies and health. How would these areas be impacted if you were your best possible self? This exercise is most useful if you are very specific. The more specific you are, the more you'll get out of the exercise. Be creative and imaginative and don't allow yourself to be tempted to think about barriers to being able to make these accomplishments happen.
Write continuously about what you imagine this best possible future to be and how you will feel when you are navigating life as your best possible self.