Whether you dropped the ball on something work-related, had a failed relationship, or missed out on an incredible opportunity, mistakes happen. Although it can be painful, setbacks are an inevitable part of being a human. Often though, it can feel challenging to let go and forgive oneself for past missteps. Holding onto those grievances, however, ultimately self-sabotages you from achieving new goals in the future. For that reason, self-forgiveness is an essential wellness practice everyone should be partaking in regularly.
Judy Ho, Ph.D, a triple-board certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, says self-forgiveness allows one to learn from their mistakes rather than just beat themselves up over them. Holding on to anger towards yourself, she adds, can lead to consequences like poor self-esteem, increased negative self-talk, and other self-destructive behaviors. "You might believe you deserve to be punished or don't deserve better," Dr. Ho says. "That's going to make it really hard for you to have positive social relationships or reach your goals because you're spending so much emotional energy invested in self-loathing that you don't make the space to do other things."
As a result, Amanda Bybel, a certified neuro-linguistic practitioner and certified life coach, says not forgiving oneself can significantly impact their ability to achieve new goals set for themselves because their external reality reflects how they feel about themselves. "If we are still feeling some guilt or shame or keeping ourselves in victim mode from something we did in the past, it's going to be reflected in what we're trying to create for the future," she says.
So why is it so hard to practice self-forgiveness? Some people, Dr. Ho notes, may have grown up in an overly critical environment, and as adults, that critical voice of a parent or elder becomes their own, making it harder for them to forgive themselves or think they're worthy. She adds that it can also stem from perfectionism. Some people may think that if they don't forgive themselves, that will push them to work harder — but, often, it has the opposite effect, Dr. Ho says the negative self-talk holds you back from achieving new goals in the future and progressing further.
The biggest sign that you may need to do some forgiveness work, Bybel says, is if you find yourself stuck in a negative thought cycle and notice that you’re regularly ruminating on things you feel you could have or should have done better and feeling bad about it.
That said, there are definitely proactive steps you can take to forgive yourself and get in a more positive headspace. Ahead, expert tips on where to start.
Dr. Ho recommends using meditation as a self-forgiveness tool. In particular, she points to a loving-kindness meditation where you visualize the people you love and send them compassion and kindness. Then you do the same for yourself, which affirms that you're worthy and you wish yourself well. An inner child visualization is another option Dr. Ho suggests. To do it, she instructs imagining your adult self comforting your child self with a hug or by telling them they're going to be OK. Similarly, Bybel recommends using your meditation time each day as an opportunity to release negative beliefs or frustrations around things you feel you should have done better.
Feel Gratitude Toward Yourself
Self-forgiveness also requires expressing gratitude and love for your past self. "Thank the past version of yourself for bringing you where you are now," Bybel says. "You were always doing the best that you could with the resources you had." This practice, she says, allows us to be more gentle with who we are and who we are becoming. Think of it as cutting the cord with your past self, Bybel adds, which will enable you to see those past mistakes through a new, more positive lens.
To take this practice deeper, Dr. Ho recommends making it a regular ritual to review the things you appreciate about yourself, things you’re proud of, and characteristics or values you have that benefit others. Feeling gratitude for these things about yourself repeatedly, she says, helps develop more self-respect, which can lead to more self-forgiveness.
Use Positive Affirmations
For those moments when you need a dose of self-forgiveness, let's say you're replaying a mistake over and over again in your mind, Dr. Ho advises turning to deep breathing as a tool in conjunction with positive affirmations. When doing so, how you word your positive affirmations can make a difference. "Sometimes with the unconscious mind, we won't exactly let something integrate if we don't fully believe it yet," Bybel says. For that reason, instead of saying "I am" statements to yourself, she suggests "I want to feel" statements, which feel more truthful. Instead of "I forgive myself," try “ I want to forgive myself,” for instance. "Your mind won't reject it, and it creates forward movement towards what you want to experience," Bybel explains.
Remember, It's A Process
Lastly, one very important thing to note and remember about self-forgiveness, Dr. Ho says: It's not always a one-and-done type of thing. Self-forgiveness is a process, and sometimes things that you thought you already forgave yourself for can come up again. If they do, her advice is to remind yourself that it's OK and return to the forgiveness tools above.
According to Bybel, you'll know you've made progress in forgiving yourself when things that may have triggered feelings of self-loathing in the past don't affect you as much, or the same limiting beliefs around the situation don't come up anymore. "There's an internal shift," she says. "You feel more at peace, content, and empowered."