How to Forgive Yourself: Moving on from the Past

Forgiveness is never easy. But forgiving yourself can be the most challenging type of forgiveness out there. Like it or not, self-forgiveness takes work that requires both compassion and empathy. If you have struggled with believing you are a bad person, coping with guilty feelings, wondering how to make amends, and awareness of your flaws, try to go easy on yourself. There’s always a next time, and while your remorse is likely normal, the best gift you can give yourself is to put the past in the past and try to move on.

forgiving yourself

Seeking Help

If you’re struggling with forgiveness over wrongdoing, there are therapists who can work with you on feelings of guilt over any past mistake. They will help you to process negative feelings, hear your worries and guilty feelings, and help you work through the process of self-forgiveness. 

Bad feelings, especially when toward yourself, are not always easy to get over. The critical voice in our heads often keeps us stuck in the past. Moreover, feelings of self-loathing ultimately impact our overall mental health. Even our physical health can suffer when we let self-condemnation go too far, and we can’t forgive ourselves for doing the wrong thing. 

No person is all good or bad. The odds are that you are a good person who just made a misstep somewhere along the way. No matter what you’ve done, you can put positive intent toward the future by putting the past away. Sadness, resentment, and even self-hate are all part of the process, but you don’t have to stay stuck in a toxic cycle with no forgiveness.

What is self-forgiveness?

Forgiveness of yourself or others is hard. But with yourself, it can be even harder as an inner critic and guilt will work against you. To begin the work of forgiving yourself, you must first understand what self-forgiveness actually means. Self-forgiveness is the cognitive ability to separate an act from a person. An example of this would be having an affair. In this example, while what you have done is adultery or infidelity, it is separate from who you are as a person. While the act itself was wrong, it does not have to define who you are. People make mistakes and the best we can do is make amends and try our best not to repeat them.

No human being is perfect. Self-forgiveness is understanding this and being okay with past wrongs. The great news about self-forgiveness is that when you practice on yourself, it will be easier to forgive other people too. 

Why is self-forgiveness important?

Forgiveness can be a challenge that takes both a lot of work and time to pass. When worried about how long it will take to forgive yourself, it is essential to remember why forgiveness is important in the first place. The following is a list of symptoms you or someone you know may be experiencing due to the inability to forgive yourself:

  • Sleeping issues
  • Anger
  • Resentment
  • Difficulty enjoying activities
  • Depression, clinical or otherwise
  • Repeat behaviors and offenses to escape the guilt of the initial offense
  • Escalating behavior and relationship challenges
  • Trouble in primary relationships
  • Issues at home, school, or work
  • Problems with physical health due to the additional stress of carrying guilt

If you wonder why it is important to forgive yourself, the list above should help you out. Whatever you have done, ask yourself, is it really worth all those challenges when you can instead put your time and energy into forgiving yourself?

There are acute dangers of holding onto anger, guilt, self-hate, and negativity. Guilt, for example, is one of the most powerful emotions out there. It can spiral you into a cycle of self-abuse and damage your overall self-esteem. Being stuck in negative feelings can also impact your decision-making, cause you to sabotage yourself in relationships both personal and career. 

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What if I’m not ready to forgive myself?

There are no specific rules about how long it should take you to forgive yourself or when you should or shouldn’t be ready. Understand that for as long as you are punishing yourself, you are suffering. Many people say that a person is healthiest when they treat themselves as their own best friend. Would you forgive your best friend if they hurt you? Consider that when struggling with whether or not you are ready to forgive yourself. 

Part of recovery and reaching self-acceptance is being compassionate with yourself about the stages of grief and change. For a person to change, things take time. Whether you are in the beginning phases of change or ready to do the hard work for forgiving, it is okay to be where you are at. Only you will know when you are truly ready. 

How to Forgive Yourself

There are some easy steps you can take if you are looking to forgive yourself. Even if you aren’t ready for professional help, follow these steps toward forgiveness

  1. Take full responsibility for whatever it is you have done. 
  2. Allow yourself to spend a little time in remorse but not to dwell in it.
  3. Do what you can to make amends to whomever you have hurt, including yourself.
  4. Focus on moving forward.

While these steps may seem simple enough, some pitfalls might happen along the way. These are perfectly normal. When looking to forgive yourself, you must be honest with yourself too. Some people will take responsibility for things they had no control over, leading them to follow unneeded steps for forgiveness. Ask yourself if you are really responsible for whatever has happened, what role you played in it, and how much of your self-blame is justified. Until you are honest about these things, it will be difficult to put the past where it belongs. 

Another thing to watch out for is getting stuck in a cycle of remorse. Try daily affirmations that you are a good person. Say this out loud and write down reasons you believe it to help combat the feelings of guilt and remorse that naturally come along with the journey of self-forgiveness. 

When working to make amends, be sure the other person wants it. If there are restraining orders, legal reasons, or even emotional reasons why it would be best not to contact the person you hurt, keep those in mind. You are better off skipping this step or writing a letter to the person and throwing it in the garbage can than triggering them with unwelcome contact. It might be therapeutic, though, to put yourself through the process of writing your remorse and feelings on paper even if you never let anyone else see those words but you. 

When focusing on moving ahead, ask yourself what therapists call “the miracle question.” That is, ask yourself what your life would look like if you were entirely comfortable with yourself and believed you were a good person. How would things be different? What changes would you make? How would those new behaviors and relationships feel? In answering these questions, you will have an outline of how to move forward. 

Remember, go slow and easy with yourself. And if you feel like you can’t do it alone, don’t be afraid to reach out to a qualified mental health professional. They have the training and skills to walk you through the process of forgiveness. Even saying your story and feelings out loud will go a long way toward helping you move toward acceptance. 

If you have never been to a therapist before and aren’t sure what to expect, it’s okay to ask questions. Things to consider might be to ask the therapist what kind of therapy they do and how long they have been in practice. You can learn a lot about a therapist ahead of time by reading their bio and learning about their background. Some psychologists are more hands-on than others. Some will tell you what they think you should do while others will encourage you to do that work yourself. Finding the right match for you will make a big difference in how long you are on your journey of self-forgiveness.

While it may feel overwhelming, we cannot rewrite the past, nor can we jump into another person’s body for a clean slate. For those who are spiritual or religious, forgiveness and that fresh start could come simply by asking a higher power for it. But for those who don’t think that’s enough, it’s important to remember that the only way through is forward. The future awaits and you deserve a second chance at happiness. Staying stuck in destructive cycles of guilt and resentment won’t do much to help you accomplish your next best move. 

For your best chance to leave the past in the past and move forward, write out a pros and cons list on what staying stuck versus total forgiveness could do for you. A complicated process? Yes. But the road after forgiveness is both clear and simple; living life at your best. 

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