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Healing Guilt: 7 Steps to Self-Forgiveness

When you carry feelings of guilt and shame, it’s impossible to feel good.

fizkes/Big Stock Images
Source: fizkes/Big Stock Images

Your ability to forgive yourself and practice self-compassion is a vital element of self-esteem. When you carry feelings of guilt and shame, it’s impossible to feel good about yourself. You believe you have done something wrong (guilt), or believe that you, as a person, are wrong (shame). Forgiving yourself will help lift the heavy burden of these emotions and increase your feelings of self-worth.

Guilt and Forgiveness

You’ve transgressed, you’ve broken a rule or gone against your moral code, and now you feel guilty about it. The guilt is uncomfortable; it gnaws at you. Everywhere you turn, it seems like the universe is reminding you of what you did wrong, and you don’t know how to stop feeling bad. The only way you will resolve the uncomfortable emotions you’re experiencing is to forgive yourself.

  1. Own what you have done. When you fully accept your accountability for your actions and their consequences, you can begin the process of forgiving yourself.
  2. Understand why you did it. Think back on the event. Try to re-experience what you felt when you made the mistake for which you now feel guilty. Do this compassionately yet responsibly. Don’t hunt for excuses or justifications. Instead, think about what need you were trying to meet, given the frame of reference you had at the time. When you understand your frame of reference, it will become clear that you were doing the best you knew how to do at the time. When you learn what needs you were trying to meet, you can find more constructive ways to fill the same needs now and in the future.
  3. Learn from your mistake. After mindfully considering the event and its repercussions in step 2, think about how you are better today than before you did what you did. What have you learned, and how have those lessons improved your life and changed you as a person?
  4. Make amends. In Judaism, you must ask for forgiveness from your fellow man before you can ask forgiveness from God. Here, we’re replacing “God” with “yourself.” You must ask forgiveness of those you have wronged before you can ask forgiveness from yourself. Communicate to the person(s) you harmed with your actions that you understand the damage that you have done to them and apologize: “I am sorry for the pain I caused you.” Remember, “I’m sorry if you feel hurt” isn’t an apology. A sincere apology doesn’t depend on how hurt the other person feels, but on how wrong you know your actions were. An apology isn’t “I’m sorry you’re hurting”; it is “I am sorry for what I did.”
  5. Atone. Atoning means putting your regret into action to minimize the damage that your actions have done. If you can’t do something to directly affect the person(s) you hurt, help someone else who is in need. Find a way to make someone else’s life better. Atonement isn’t self-punishment; it is reparations. Self-punishment doesn’t help anyone, including yourself. Atonement is reparative and productive.
  6. Apply lessons learned. Take what you have learned from your mistake and apply it toward your future actions. This is more than just an intention to do better. Ask yourself, “What can I do to ensure I don’t make the same mistake again?” Learning from your mistakes requires mindfulness. If you don’t stay alert to your thoughts, emotions, and experiences, it will be easy to fall back into the old way of doing things and to make the same mistake again.
  7. Forgive yourself. Say, “I forgive myself for the mistakes I have made, and I allow myself to move forward in living as my best possible self.”

If you don’t forgive yourself, the mistake you made will continue to reverberate in your life. It will hang around you like an endless echo. No benefit or good can come from keeping yourself stuck in the disempowering pattern of self-punishment. We all make mistakes. Don’t let yours define you. Don’t let guilt turn into shame. Forgive yourself.

More from Andrea Brandt Ph.D. M.F.T.
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