Plus, 13 actionable ways to facilitate internal forgiveness.
by Ellen Michaud
Finding peace within yourselves is easier said than done. We’ve all done things we’re not proud of or wished our actions led to different outcomes. Maybe you spent half the month’s food budget on a new coat or you didn’t get to your son’s soccer match before the second half, whatever the situation, figuring out how to forgive yourself is key to moving forward.
To make things even more complicated, forgiveness, even of one’s self, doesn’t happen overnight. “Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and it’s okay to have feelings such as guilt or shame,” says Heather Hagen, M.S., L.M.F.T., Director of Clinical Program Development for Newport Healthcare. “Take care of yourself, both physically and mentally, as forgiving yourself won’t happen overnight and may take time.”
Psychologist Fred Luskin, Ph.D., director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, has spent years conducting studies and workshops on forgiveness, working with men who’ve cheated on their wives, kids who’ve dumped their parents, and a whole lot worse. But the biggest obstacle to self-forgiveness is our tendency to wallow in our own guilt, he told Prevention. “It’s not just that we feel bad because we know we’ve done wrong,” Luskin explains. Everybody does that. But some of us actually draw those bad feelings around ourselves like a blanket, cover our heads, and refuse to stop the wailing.
If that sounds odd to you, you’re not alone. But some of us try to use those bad feelings like a talisman to ward off the consequences of our actions, says Luskin. We curl up in a ball and say, “Hey! Look how bad I feel! See how I’m suffering! I’m pitiful! I’m pathetic! I can’t be punished any more than this; it wouldn’t be fair!”
It’s a “form of penance,” adds Luskin. Instead of taking responsibility for what we’ve done by trying to repair the damage or make things right, many of us unconsciously decide to punish ourselves by feeling miserable for the rest of our lives.
And to make matters even worse, misery loves company. “If you keep beating yourself up, then the person who tries to love you is going to get beat up, too,” explains Luskin. It’s inevitable. Anyone who’s wallowing in guilt is going to be more withdrawn, more critical, and less open than they normally would. So whoever’s around—your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, even your dog—is going to suffer right along with you.
But the suffering doesn’t stop with those around you. Mind affects the body in a zillion interconnecting ways, and those guilty feelings you’re nurturing are generating chemicals that are headed straight for your vital organs. It’s no wonder that studies on forgiveness have led scientists to suspect that those who have difficulty forgiving are more likely to experience heart attacks, high blood pressure, depression, and other ills.
“Forgiveness is a tool with which we face what we’ve done in the past, acknowledge our mistakes, and move on. It does not mean that you condone or excuse what happened. It does not mean that you forget,” says Luskin. “There’s a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that. But the season ends; the world moves on. And we need to move on with it.”
Here are 13 ways to find self-forgiveness—no matter the circumstances.
1. Categorize the offense
“Most of us find it hard to forgive ourselves when we’ve done one of these four things,” says Luskin.
- You fail at some major life tasks such as making your marriage work.
- Your actions have hurt someone else.
- You’ve hurt yourself by the way you’ve led your life: drinking or doing something else that’s self-destructive.
- You didn’t do something you thought you should, such as intervene in a family dispute or put money away so your kid can go to college.
“Categorizing the offense begins the forgiveness process,” he says. “It allows you to break down what you did, look at it, get a little distance, and begin healing.”
2. Give yourself grace
According to Hagen, giving yourself grace is key. “Remember to give yourself some grace,” she says. “We are only human, and mistakes happen. What matters is what you do next.”
3. Know how you feel
“Articulate the specific wrong you committed and the harm it caused,” says Luskin. “Tell a couple of trusted people about what you did to get support, care, and advice.”
Sharing reminds us that everyone makes mistakes. “We commonly think we’re alone and unique in our suffering, but this only makes healing more difficult,” he says. Confessing what you’ve done also prevents you from slipping into denial, suppression, repression, and forgetting.
4. Watch your internal monologue
Hagen says it’s important to not beat yourself up. “Try to minimize negative self-talk. Dwelling on situations and making yourself feel worse about it will halt any progress in forgiving yourself,” she says. Instead, acknowledge and accept any mistakes without putting yourself down. “Reframe what happened and think of it as a learning experience. What happened this time and what can you do differently in the future?” she says.
5. Recognize unrealistic expectations
Most of us have a set of unconscious rules hovering in the back of our minds about how we expect ourselves to behave. But those rules, many of which we absorbed in childhood rather than actually thought about, are not always realistic.
6. Identify the hurt
Realize that the hurt feelings, guilty thoughts, and tummy-tightening stress you feel whenever you think of your offense is what’s actually making you feel bad—not what you did two minutes or 10 years ago, says Luskin. It’s your reaction to it today that’s causing a problem. It’s a habit that has to go.
7. Hit the stop button
Replaying what you did over and over again in your head isn’t going to help you or the person you hurt. It just makes you feel bad. So every time you catch yourself ruminating on your sins, stop, and refocus your attention on something more positive. “Tell yourself that whatever happened doesn’t define who you are,” says Hagen
When you can’t forgive yourself because of something you’ve done to someone else, sometimes all it takes is a sincere apology to make things right. Apologies are most effective if made in person, of course. But if that’s not possible, consider wrapping your apology in a little humor. One woman who owed her husband an apology sent him a copy of the game “Sorry!” with a note asking if they could play. Not to be beaten, her husband responded with a copy of the old Brenda Lee single, “I’m Sorry.” Sweet and simple.
9. Practice PERT
PERT stands for Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique. It’s a 45-second strategy Luskin developed to use whenever you start beating yourself up over past sins. Simply close your eyes, draw in a long breath that gently pushes out your belly, then slowly exhale as you relax your belly. Draw a second breath, and exhale.
On the third deep breath, says Luskin, create a mental image of someone you love or of a beautiful place in nature that fills you with awe: a beautiful beach, a path through a majestic redwood forest, a mountain stream tumbling over rocks. Breathe deeply as your mind explores the natural beauty around you. Notice how you feel, and allow those feelings to center on the area around your heart.
10. Make it right
“To make amends, you look for a way to be kind to those you have hurt,” says Luskin. Even if the person you hurt is dead or otherwise absent from your life, you can still make things right by providing a kindness to someone else, says Luskin. “Think you were a bad parent? OK, you can’t go back and change things now, but can you go out of your way to be an outstanding grandparent? Can you join a Big Brothers or Big Sisters organization and provide some guidance and companionship to somebody else’s child?”
“Do good rather than feel bad,” says Luskin. Not only will you forgive yourself, but doing so will turn your life around in ways that you can only imagine.
11. Take responsibility
Hagen says owning up to what you’ve done is key. “Take responsibility and own up to what happened. Avoiding the situation or person you wronged can make forgiving yourself much more difficult,” she says
12. Put things in perspective
Once a day, think of all the kind and loving things you’ve done today alone: the stray dog you picked up and returned to its owner, the crying child you distracted so its mother could eat her lunch, the dry cleaning you picked up after work so that your honey could exercise. Think about it for very long, and you’ll realize that you’ve become one amazing person!
13. Replace guilt with gratitude
Feeling bad about things you’ve done in the past can create a pretty painful present. So while you’re learning how to forgive yourself and move on, give your mind and body a break from all the shame and guilt by replacing them with gratitude, says Luskin. Here’s how he suggests you do it:
- Walk into your nearest supermarket and give thanks for the abundance of food that’s available.
- Go to a nursing home or hospital and give thanks for your own good health.
- When driving, mentally thank each of the drivers who follow the rules of the road.
- If you have a significant other in your life, thank him or her for caring for you every day.
- Really notice the salesperson in a store who waits on you. Thank them for helping you.
- As you wake each morning, give thanks for your breath and the gift of your life.
- After all, it’s so much better to do good than to feel bad.
Article originally published in Prevention.