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Forgiving Yourself: 3 Tips to Overcome the Obstacles

Feeling we’ve made a mistake, choosing the wrong words or straying from our moral compass: there are some decisions we end up regretting for days, weeks or even years. Thoughts of “what if…” can grind us down without ever getting us anywhere.

Forgiving yourself is a tricky matter. What often comes so easily when someone else is in the wrong can be a real challenge when we feel culpable ourselves. Why is that? Why is it worth the effort to forgive ourselves, and how can we manage it?

What makes it so tricky?

Why can it be so difficult to forgive ourselves? We usually manage it when it comes to others. Not holding grudges and showing a willingness to forgive others is part of how we get along and is considered a positive quality.

As in so many cases, the devil is in the detail. Although we often have the opportunity to observe and learn from other people how they comfort and forgive each other, this does not apply to forgiving ourselves. The question of whether someone else forgives themselves and how they manage it – these things usually remain invisible to us.

We have learned that forgiveness is something that comes from “outside” and not from “inside”.

The fact that forgiving ourselves is so difficult also stems from another learning experience: mistakes are not welcome. By our school days, at the latest, we are well aware of how desirable it is to be “faultless”. Make zero mistakes in a dictation and we’ll be showered with praise and recognition, while every mark of the teacher’s red pen is seen as a blot on the perfect record we’re striving for. We very quickly internalise the notion that we should not make mistakes. When it does happen, feelings of shame, guilt or fear can arise. We are angry with ourselves, disappointed, we may even hate ourselves. In this frame of mind, forgiving ourselves can seem almost impossible.

To avoid making mistakes entirely is a deceptive goal: it is neither achievable nor truly meaningful.

Why should you forgive yourself?

It’s important to forgive yourself. Because constantly ruminating, doubting yourself or blaming yourself can be a real burden in the long run. On the other hand, accepting yourself along with all your qualities, all your imperfections and all the decisions you take along the way, developing a loving attitude towards yourself – this can be healing. Forgiving yourself means letting go. It also means letting go of the past, so you can look to the future and move forward.

How can I forgive myself?

How do we forgive other people? Usually by telling the other person that it’s okay and that we forgive them. We might verbally accept their apology or gesture, or we might express our reconciliation by having a hug. But how can we successfully forgive ourselves? We have 3 tips for you.

1Change your perspective

The first crucial step to forgiving yourself is to recognise that mistakes are part of life. Not just as unwelcome companions, but as valuable signposts. Because we learn from mistakes. Was your last relationship a big mistake? Then you now know what definitely has to be different next time around. Do you regret how you behaved? Then you will pay more attention next time you’re in a comparable situation.

» If I could live my life over again, I would make the same mistakes. Just a little earlier, so I could benefit more. «

Marlene Dietrich

Always staying in your own comfort zone to avoid making mistakes means standing still. It’s perfectly okay to change your perspective and see “mistakes” or “wrong” decisions less as a hindrance and more as a learning opportunity. This makes it easier to forgive yourself when something goes wrong. Because making mistakes is okay and totally normal.

2Forgive yourself with gestures of reconciliation

It might sound a little unusual, but you can also offer yourself gestures of reconciliation. For example, you can give yourself a hug by crossing your arms and placing your hands on your shoulder blades. You can also tell yourself, either inwardly or out loud, that you forgive yourself. This is not the same as playing down the impacts of any decisions or actions you have taken. And sometimes it may simply not feel right to say you forgive yourself. An alternative is to say to yourself, “It’s okay the way it is. I am ok the way I am.”

3Write a letter

No one criticises us like we criticise ourselves. To forgive yourself, it can help to talk to yourself the same way you would talk to someone else. The following exercise may help you.

Exercise

The encouraging letter

Take a piece of paper and a pen. Now imagine that a good friend tells you they can’t forgive themselves for something they’ve done – the very thing you’re holding against yourself at the moment. Then write a letter to your friend encouraging them, building them up and giving them permission to forgive themselves. Perhaps the following questions will help you to formulate your letter:

  • Why is it okay to put the past to rest? What might even be advantages of doing so?
  • Is there anything positive about the situation? For example, can something be learned from it?
  • Are there some words or a gesture that would help the other person to forgive themselves?

Forgiving yourself: what if it doesn’t work?

It may be that the unpleasant feelings and thoughts persist, despite all your attempts to forgive yourself. If you notice that they are weighing heavily on you and not starting to fade, it’s time to seek support. Sometimes psychotherapy can help you to find a new way of dealing with the past.

Do you want to actively and self-determinedly increase your well-being? Get to know our clinically proven online courses and find just the right one for you.

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Our articles are written by psychologists and reviewed by psychotherapists.