“At any given moment, you have the power to say: This is not how the story is going to end.” ~ Christine Mason Miller
Sometimes you do or say things you regret. If you’ve experienced this recently, you might be struggling to forgive yourself, especially if your actions hurt someone you love.
A few months ago, I had a falling out with a friend. It happened like most misunderstandings do: swiftly and unexpectedly. I barely had time to comprehend what was happening.
My friend was trying to convince me to join him in a business venture, which I politely tried to decline. After a while of us going back and forth, my patience was wearing thin, and he began to appear less like a friend and more like a pushy salesman.
He then made a comment that I interpreted as a personal insult. I immediately became angry and lashed out. I thought I was justified in my reaction, but upon reflection, I realized that I had misunderstood his words and rushed to judgment.
Even after a follow-up conversation, with my apologies and all, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had made a terrible mistake. I feared that our relationship would never be the same.
That episode in my life led me to think about the ways we get hung up on our personal failures. They can threaten to keep us stuck in the past and define who we are going forward.
My personal reflection and experience yielded the following seven steps to forgiving yourself:
1. Name what you have done.
Before you can forgive yourself, you must gain some clarity about what happened. Begin by writing down the details of the events and your own actions that contributed to the situation.
Resist the need to blame any other people or external circumstances, and focus only on yourself. You may experience intense vulnerability when you do this exercise. Engage this vulnerability by compassionately owning it rather than suppressing it.
In my own situation, I justified my actions by focusing on my friend’s uncharacteristically aggressive behavior. Once I was willing to focus on my own behavior, I could see more clearly that I had judged his words too quickly.
2. Ask for forgiveness.
Asking for forgiveness is not easy. Your willingness to approach a person you have hurt means you’re admitting you have done wrong and are sorry for it.
Avoid minimizing your responsibility by using phrases like, “I’m sorry if…” or, “I’m sorry but…” I knew that I needed to apologize to my friend and take full responsibility for my actions. I simply named the wrong I had done to him and asked for forgiveness.
3. Forgive yourself every time negative thoughts intrude.
Sometimes we struggle to forgive ourselves, even when we have been forgiven.
After my friend and I had resolved our situation, I continued to experience guilt and negative thoughts about my actions.
I eventually learned that self-forgiveness is not a one-time deal—it’s a gradual process. Every time self-loathing thoughts surfaced, I would take a deep breath and exhale all the negativity I was feeling. You can do some similar act of kindness toward yourself when negative thoughts emerge.
4. Show up and let yourself be seen.
This idea comes from Dr. Brené Brown, whose research on vulnerability and shame has helped many people gain the courage to show up for their lives rather than sit on the sidelines—or worse, hide in shame.
When facing painful personal mistakes, the temptation to shut down and disengage is strong.
I found myself avoiding interactions with my friend because I was afraid he would judge me or remind me of what happened in the past. Once I had the courage to show up, I quickly discovered that my fears were unfounded.
If you struggle with showing up, know that you have gained much wisdom that can help your future relationships thrive if you have the strength to show up and try again.
5. Be grateful for your mistakes.
It might seem strange to express gratitude for our mistakes, especially the embarrassing and painful ones. But think back to a time when you exercised poor judgment or did something you regretted. How has the experience changed you? Did it make you wiser, stronger, or more discerning?
I learned the dangers of having a quick temper and rushing to judgment. Now when I am upset, I try to give myself some time and space to reflect rather than react. I am thankful for the opportunity to grow in these ways.
And if you can learn to see your mistakes in such a light—as opportunities to grow—you can be grateful for them too.
6. Radically love all of who you are.
Joseph Campbell once said, “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” So be who you are, not who you used to be. Celebrate who you have become in spite of, or even because of, your past mistakes.
My own mistakes and flaws have helped me become a better person to my friend, and that will ultimately strengthen my friendships going forward.
So love all of who you are, including your past mistakes, and you’ll only grow stronger from them.
You Are Worthy of Forgiveness
These steps are not always easy to follow—especially during times when we have truly messed up. But we can recover from our mistakes, learn from them, forgive ourselves, and move on with our lives.
You are worthy of your own love and forgiveness. Believe it with every fiber of your being.
Commit to practicing these steps daily, even on those days when you’d rather not.
Resolve to forgive yourself. Resolve to free yourself of the past. Resolve to live in the present. And look toward the future with hope and optimism.
About Cylon George
Cylon is a spiritual chaplain, musician, devoted husband, busy dad of seven, and author of Self-Love: How to Love Yourself Unconditionally. He blogs about practical spiritual tips for living well at Spiritual Living For Busy People. Sign up and get his free guided meditation on contemplating death to release your fears and live more fully.