Forgiveness isn’t always easy. When someone hurts you, it can require major strength (and maturity) to take a deep breath, put your ego aside, and accept a sincere apology. But what happens if the person you need to forgive is, er, yourself? Let’s face it: You might need to forgive yourself for a harmful thing you did. Maybe you’ve even already asked someone else for forgiveness, but you can’t let yourself off the hook. Or maybe you need to grant yourself forgiveness for an annoying pattern that does more harm in your life than you’d like (hello, people-pleasing).
Whether you made a few careless comments on a recent Zoom call, or you’re tired of never sticking up for yourself, it can feel downright impossible to forgive yourself and let that shit go. Below, we talked to experts about why and how to forgive yourself (because you deserve it).
1. Approach yourself like you would a best friend.
“When we’ve done something that is outside our moral [comfort] zone, often we start beating ourselves up about it, which doesn’t really help. So we have to practice a lot of self-compassion,” Emily Jamea, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., tells SELF. How do we do that? You know the feeling when your best friend calls post-breakup and starts saying terrible things about themselves? Even if there is an opportunity for your bestie to grow from their pain, you probably start with, “Hey, you’re human—be kind to yourself.” Still, we don’t always provide that caveat for ourselves. So what would it look like to address yourself as if you were talking to a friend? “That question alone can help create a little bit of perspective and soften the negative feelings we may have towards ourselves,” Dr. Jamea says.
If you’re infamously hard on your friends (under the guise of “being honest”), this tip might not work. Instead, try looking at yourself as if you’re a child or even a rambunctious puppy. The idea is to soften your heart toward your mistakes. Robert Allan, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, tells SELF that you should remember that “making mistakes is human. We’re all going to make them.” There’s a difference between saying, “What I did was terrible” and “I am terrible.”
2. Write (or talk) the facts out.
Often, when you do something wrong, you might feel an overwhelming rush of guilt. That can make it tempting to view the interaction through a hazy mix of shame and catastrophic thinking, or even to try to deny the effect your actions have had. In these cases, it might help write down what happened, even if it wasn’t pretty, to say it out loud to yourself, or to discuss it with a non-judgemental person you trust.
“You have to be able to say, ‘This is something that I do or this is something that I have done, and it has had an impact on me or others in ways that I don’t want it to,’” Dr. Allan says, adding that if we can’t name what we’ve done, it’s harder to change it. So write down the facts or share them with someone you trust. The key here is to do whatever helps you own up to the truth of whatever occurred.
3. Then, remember that all behaviors have an origin story.
If you yell when you’re angry or work too hard to please others, these tactics probably helped you at some point, Dr. Allan says. So remind yourself that, even though it’s time to let go of these strategies, they’ve enabled your survival. To that end, forgiveness has to include “an acceptance of that part of ourselves,” Dr. Allan says. Think of it as Marie Kondo-ing your personality: Thank those habits for assisting you, but—since they no longer spark joy or offer emotional protection—let them go.
4. Try to make amends.
You looked at your situation through a more compassionate lens, you named what happened, you acknowledged how destructive behaviors have been helpful in the past, so now ask yourself how you’d like to make amends. Let’s say you’re angry at yourself for letting another week go by without cleaning your apartment. You might take a look at your calendar and figure out another realistic day. If your transgression is something like yelling at a friend during a drunken Zoom party, you might brainstorm ways to keep yourself from overdrinking on future calls. The idea isn’t to punish yourself. “An amends takes an apology one step further,” Dr. Jamea says. “It’s accountability for what you did and commitment to doing differently in the future.”
5. Remember that forgiveness is a process.
Part of the reason self-forgiveness can feel so nebulous is that it isn’t a one-time affair. It doesn’t automatically appear after you’ve said “I’m sorry” in the mirror. “Forgiveness is an active process, and it can require repetition,” Dr. Allan says. This might not be the only conversation that you need to release the grudge you’re holding against yourself. Maybe you need to work with a therapist or other mental health professional to support you. Ultimately, you might need to grant yourself some patience. “Forgiveness isn’t a doorway,” Dr. Allan says, “consider forgiveness something that you engage with over time.”