How do you forgive yourself, especially when you feel shame and regret about things you have done in the past?
Dealing with shame and regret isn’t easy. And forgiving yourself can be extremely difficult when you live in constant guilt and regret.
Many of us carry hard, hurtful emotions that build with us as time goes on.
One of these feelings — particularly for me — is resentment.
You can direct resentment towards other people, situations, or yourself.
When I first began on my journey of self-forgiveness, what I had to initially confront was how much resentment I had towards myself.
How To Forgive Yourself
Many of us are critical and unforgiving to ourselves. A lot of us don’t even trust ourselves.
And when we are so critical of ourselves, we start harboring resentment.
Forgiving yourself isn’t easy — it takes work. But it’s worth it.
I started forgiving myself by meditating, journaling, asking for help, and focusing on healing.
One specific exercise I did was to write down a long list of things that I wanted to forgive myself for:
- being harsh and critical of some of the people closest to me,
- being annoyed and unkind to our girls at times,
- worrying about all kinds of superficial things,
- being unable to overcome failure,
- harming my body over the years,
- not taking good care of myself,
- making mistakes in my business and with our finances,
- not practicing what I preached in my work,
And on and on the list went.
As I wrote these things down in my journal, I was initially concerned that it was my gremlin taking over and listing out all the things that were “wrong” with me and all the reasons why I was “bad.”
But as I allowed myself to engage more deeply in the process, I realized that what I was doing was telling the truth about all the things I’d been judging myself for.
Engaging in this process was my attempt in some way to let go of the resentment I was holding toward myself. I was trying to move into a place of forgiveness and, ultimately, freedom. And while I wasn’t sure if I knew exactly the “right” way to forgive myself, I decided to ask to be forgiven in my writings, prayers, and meditations.
Before I went to bed at night, I would ask for the weight of this self-criticism and negativity to lift off of me.
The Nature of Growth and Change
A few days after doing this self-reflection and self-forgiveness exercise, I felt 50 pounds lighter.
A few weeks later, I had my first session with my counselor Eleanor. As Eleanor and I began to work together, which we’ve continued to do over the past decade with wonderful results, she began to explain to me the nature of growth and change.
These are the basic steps involved in the process of growing and changing:
- Recognize: You must recognize what’s going on and what you’re doing. Recognizing is about seeing and about authentic awareness.
- Acknowledge: You must acknowledge the impact of what you’re doing with compassion and without judgment. Acknowledgment is about feeling your emotions and owning the impact.
- Forgive: The most crucial step in the process is forgiveness — a willingness to forgive yourself. Self-forgiveness isn’t about letting yourself off the hook. It’s about caring enough to take a deeper level of responsibility. And when you do that, you’re able to forgive yourself authentically.
- Change: If you genuinely recognize, acknowledge, and forgive, the change pretty much happens on its own. You don’t have to — nor do you get to — control it. Change is the result of authentic forgiveness, and genuine forgiveness is about releasing the past and all the stories you have associated with it.
Unfortunately, most of us actually recognize, acknowledge, punish, and repeat — instead of forgiving and changing — which keeps specific negative patterns in place in our lives and causes us a great deal of pain and suffering.
For real change to happen, we must constantly focus on forgiving ourselves and releasing the past and all of the stories connected to it.
Moving Forward with Self-Forgiveness
Given that most of us have many years of experience of not doing this and still tend to be hypercritical of ourselves, self-forgiveness can be challenging.
Forgiveness continues to be a challenge for me, although it’s getting easier. It’s a practice, and like any practice, the more we do it, the easier it is and the more effective we become.
The more willing we are to take an honest look within — recognize and acknowledge our self-sabotaging ways and forgive ourselves for them — the more likely we can begin to change in an authentic and powerful way.
Remember: we all make mistakes. And that’s okay. We all do things that we regret. Self-forgiveness makes it possible to forgive others and live our lives with a genuine sense of freedom, peace, and love.
This is a modified excerpt taken from my book Nothing Changes Until You Do, with permission from our publisher, Hay House. This book is available online or in bookstores. Share your thoughts, action ideas, insights, and more here or in the comments section of this post.
I have written five books about the importance of trust, authenticity, appreciation, and more. In addition, I deliver keynotes and seminars (both in-person and virtually) to empower people, leaders, and teams to grow, connect, and perform their best. Finally, as an expert in teamwork, leadership, and emotional intelligence, I teach techniques that allow people and organizations to be more authentic and effective. Find out more about how I can help you and your team achieve your goals today. You can also listen to my podcast here.
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This article was originally published on April 30, 2014, and updated for 2021.