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How to Forgive Yourself and Move on From the Past

Four simple ways to forgive yourself and get on with your life.

Key points

  • Self-forgiveness can be hard because the feeling of having done something "wrong" registers in one's nervous system.
  • Seeing oneself as flawed can feel vulnerable and even scary, making it hard for one to take ownership of a mistake.
  • Lack of self-love can get in the way of self-forgiveness.

Many of us know that forgiveness is a good thing, right? It frees us from bitterness and anger, two emotions that not only don’t feel good but can also disrupt our physical health and hold us back from all the good we might achieve and experience. I know many of you have worked on forgiving others. But what about forgiving ourselves?

Even if we’ve gotten pretty good and consistent about offering forgiveness to others, isn’t forgiving ourselves often the most difficult? Understanding why self-forgiveness is difficult can give us clues to make it easier:

1. "God may forgive your sins, but your nervous system won't." —Alfred Korzybski

When we’ve done something “wrong,” we register it in our nervous system. An injury to someone else might be accompanied by guilt. A mistake that costs us something we want might have sadness attached to it. When we’ve done something we regret, we often connect it to a limiting belief like, “I’m always saying the wrong things” or “I’ll never be able to cover my bills.”

If we try to forgive ourselves for something without releasing the underlying emotion or belief we’ve attached to it, the forgiveness just doesn’t take. No matter how hard you try to forgive, you continue to beat yourself up for whatever happened—because your nervous system tells you to. What can you do about that? Identify the limiting belief or negative emotion you’ve attached to what you’re trying to forgive in yourself. Release that first, using a process like Mental Emotional Release®, and you’ll find that forgiving yourself is not that difficult.

2. "Forgiveness means letting go of the past." —Gerald Jampolsky

We tend to think of ourselves as a continuum—a human being that begins with our past, moves briefly through our present, and heads toward our future. Letting go of our own past—or the past we have created in our heads—can feel shaky and “ungrounded,” like a boat that has slipped its mooring.

When we try to forgive ourselves, we’re trying to release something that feels like it is part of us. We’re releasing who we were in the moment that we did whatever it was. When we forgive what someone else has done, in a sense it feels easier: We’re releasing a part of our past that isn’t essentially who we are—unless we’ve told the story of that hurt so frequently that we’ve built our identity around it. In that case, it becomes hard to forgive the other person because the transgression and our reaction have become central to how we define ourselves.

To release that part of your past that you need to forgive, it’s helpful to remember that we’re all doing the best we can in any moment. If you had known that your action would cause pain to others or yourself, you probably wouldn’t have done it, right? And even if you knew that you were causing damage at the time, you had no idea how much you would regret it in the future.

Retain what you learned from the event but release everything else.

3. "The chief trick to making good mistakes is not to hide them—especially not from yourself." —Daniel Dennett

Seeing ourselves as flawed can feel vulnerable and even scary. We’re basically wired to survive, but beings that make too many mistakes tend to get ousted from the gene pool. Even our educational system tells us that anything that is not “right” is “bad” and deserves some form of punishment. So we try to avoid mistakes at all costs, and when we do make a misstep, our first impulse is to hide it.

In order to forgive ourselves, we first have to admit to ourselves that we blew it. We have to take ownership and acknowledge the flaw or mistake—which feels almost counter to our sense of survival.

It’s helpful to remember that mistakes, failures, and even incredibly stupid acts are part of being human. It’s how we learn and grow. If you’re never embarrassed or wrong and if you never make a mistake, you’re probably staying within a pretty narrow comfort zone.

Appreciate your missteps for what they are—a stepping stone on your path.

4. "One forgives to the degree that one loves." —Francois de La Rochefoucauld

When you really love someone, isn’t it easier to forgive them? If you have a trusting, loving relationship and your friend or significant other does something that hurts you, aren’t you more likely to see that transgression as a one-time event? Don’t you refer back to the goodness you love in them?

A lot of us don’t have that loving, trusting relationship with ourselves. Many of us are much more critical of ourselves than we are of others. We’ll give other people the benefit of the doubt but won’t cut ourselves any slack at all.

When you’re dealing with a person you don’t trust or like, most often you can choose to forgive, release the hurt, and simply not maintain contact with them anymore. With yourself? It's not an option. You don’t get to quit, divorce or walk away from yourself. If you don’t love and appreciate yourself, somehow you have to get your relationship with you to be more positive.

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