Shame is the cancer of the psyche. It eats away at us slowly, tainting everything we experience with its dark glow of self-loathing. And it all stems from a lack of self-forgiveness.
Have you ever said, done, or thought something truly horrible?
Have you ever:
- betrayed someone you loved
- overstepped a boundary you thought you’d never cross, or
- intentionally inflicted harm upon yourself (or another)?
If you’re human, I can guarantee that you’ll say an almost immediate yes.
And don’t worry, you’re not alone. We have all been there to differing degrees. You’re not a monster, you’re just a flawed and wounded human being.
While I’m not here to excuse anything you’ve done (self-responsibility is crucial), I am here to be a voice of compassion. Hating yourself won’t make anything better.
It’s time for some self-forgiveness.
What is Self-Forgiveness?
Self-forgiveness is the practice of forgiving yourself of past wrongdoings. It involves changing your perception of yourself and what happened through the eyes of self-compassion and self-understanding. By understanding the deeper mechanics of why you did what you did, and holding yourself in the embrace of self-love, you can let go, move on, and feel free again.
Actions That Make us Feel Guilt and Shame (Examples)
While we can sometimes feel haunted by a thought or intention we’ve secretly carried (once or many times), generally we feel most deeply impacted by what we’ve done.
Here are some examples of actions that cause us guilt and shame:
- Bullying someone
- Getting an abortion
- Cheating on your partner
- Physically hurting a loved one
- Gossiping and/or spreading rumors
- Destroying other’s property
And of course, there are more extreme cases out there that range from molestation to murder. (Clearly, this article isn’t approving such actions, or giving you a get out of jail free card – it’s simply focusing on the other side of the journey: self-forgiveness.)
The Dark Side of Self-Condemnation
It’s vital to have a certain level of guilt/shame after hurting ourselves or someone else. Without guilt, we would sociopathically ignore the impact of our behavior. (And can you imagine what society would be like if no one felt bad about what they’d done? We’d be living in a non-stop apocalypse.)
But guilt and shame become toxic when they begin to fester within us; when we can’t let go of what we’ve done or move on. Picture a stagnant pool of water – that’s what a lack of self-forgiveness feels like. There is no growth, no movement, no freshness, no life inside, only the same old rancid sludge of self-hating thoughts.
In fact, when we carry toxic guilt and shame, we tend to create a negative and unrealistic image of ourselves in our minds. Such dark self-images sadly tend to create self-fulfilling prophecies or negative feedback loops. In other words, if we carry the negative core belief that we’re a cheating scumbag who doesn’t have an ounce of loyalty within us, we may perpetuate that same behavior in our next relationship.
8 Benefits of Self-Forgiveness
To prevent the same old mistakes from happening, learning how to forgive ourselves is crucial. In other words, self-forgiveness gives us a new lease on life, it frees us to grow, change, and transform in positive ways. Sometimes, it inspires us to help others in similar circumstances that we once experienced (or inflicted).
Yes, guilt and shame are important to feel, but only up until a certain point. We need to mourn and regret our behavior, but we also need to make space to learn from our mistakes and change as a person.
Here’s how self-forgiveness helps us:
- We stop dwelling in (and endlessly reliving) the past
- We begin living in the present moment
- We have more hope for the future
- We develop more self-love and understanding
- We can more readily forgive others
- We learn from our mistakes and transform as people
- We have more energy and motivation for life
- We learn how to become a better person
Download FREE Self-Forgiveness Worksheets!
Go deeper with a self-forgiveness journaling prompt + printable meditation mandala!
How to Forgive Yourself For Past Mistakes (8 Steps)
Learning how to forgive yourself is a journey that can take anywhere from a day to a lifetime – it’s truly a unique process, and there’s no right or wrong pace at which you “should” be moving.
Like you, I am imperfect. I have done things that have shamed me to the core. I have regrets. I have a shadow self. But I’ve also done a lot of inner work and healing that has helped me to move past my mistakes and transform as a person. I’m sure there will be many more hiccups in the future, but by knowing the importance of self-forgiveness, I trust that I’ll be able to get through them. Even if I don’t have immediate success, I have practiced the below philosophies enough to know that I’ll eventually learn from my mistakes.
Here is what I’ve learned from my own journey and observing/helping others on theirs on how to forgive yourself:
1. Understand that you cannot change the past
The past is done, gone, kaput. You cannot change or alter it. Therefore, dwelling obsessively over what you “could” or “should” have done is a waste of time and energy. Beating yourself up achieves nothing but more self-hatred – and self-hatred is the antithesis of growth. Do you want to “fix” what happened? The only way to do that now is to move forward. The only way is to let your mistakes teach you and transform you as a person. Obsessing over the past simply cannot do that. It’s time to let go.
2. Reflect on your level of consciousness (then vs. now)
I’m going to say something that will be crucial for you to remember and reflect on:
We’re all doing the best we can based on the level of consciousness we have in the moment.
What does this mean exactly? “Based on the level of consciousness we have” means that, throughout life, we all have varying degrees of mental, emotional, and spiritual maturity. When you were 5 years old, for instance, you had a lower level of maturity than at 15, 25, or 55.
The you then is not the you now. Your life has changed. You have aged. You have had more experiences. You have learned more, felt more, seen more, and understood more. Even your body has changed. There is not one part of you that hasn’t changed (except, perhaps, your Soul or True Self). So then, how can you keep resenting yourself?
Dedicate some serious time to reflecting on this truth. I recommend journaling your thoughts and feelings about the statement: We’re all doing the best we can based on the level of consciousness we have in the moment.
In the moment you made a mistake in the past, you had a different level of consciousness. Perhaps you weren’t as aware, awake, and cognizant of the consequences. Perhaps you were reacting from old wounds. Perhaps your shadow self temporarily took over. Do some digging and cut yourself some slack.
3. See your mistake as a reflection of the Shadow Self
We all have a dark side, a place within us that we would prefer not to look at. This dark side is usually unconscious and was formed due to experiences in life that taught us that certain parts of us were “good” and other parts were “bad.” It is this Shadow Self part that causes us to self-sabotage, seethe with jealousy, be blinded by rage, lie to our partners, and hurt our loved ones.
What is, perhaps, most critical to remember is that this is just one part of you, it is not the whole of you. When we struggle to forgive ourselves, we tend to identify solely with (and as) our Shadow Selves and forget all of our kind, loving, and endearing qualities.
Remember that whatever you did is not a reflection of your True Nature – it is a result of your unexamined Shadow erupting to the surface of your life and wreaking havoc. If anything, whatever you’ve done has gifted you with the blessing of knowing first-hand the importance of Shadow Work (or exploring your Shadow). Please take this as a wake-up call to start the inward journey of involution, of inner transformation – not as a call to continue demonizing yourself.
4. Creatively express your grief and regret
When we’ve made a serious mistake (or have done something that triggers intense toxic shame in us), it’s important that we make space to process these feelings. Mind you, ruminating and dredging up old memories repeatedly is not processing your feelings: it’s simmering in them. It’s time to do away with that form of self-punishment. Facing, feeling, and expressing what’s going on inside of you will be a vital part of your healing journey.
To process your complicated grief and regret, I strongly recommend finding some kind of creative outlet. Creative self-expression is a form of inner alchemy that helps to transmute your pain into wisdom. Examples include:
- Composing music
You don’t have to be an artist to self-express – this is an inborn need and capacity within all of us. So do some reflecting and see what resonates with you.
Once you’ve chosen a form of creative self-expression, use your guilt/shame/regret as inspiration. For example, if you betrayed the trust of someone you loved in the past, create a piece of art based on the feeling of betrayal. What does betrayal look, sound, smell, taste, and feel like? How did it impact them and you? What can you learn from this situation? How has it changed you? Infuse your art with these contemplations.
5. Work with your inner archetypes
Archetypes are types (or patterns) of energy that can be found within all people, societies, races, and periods of time. Common archetypes include The Warrior, The Maiden, The Hero, The Mother, The Victim, The Wise Man/Woman, etc.
One reason why I love and respect the practice of working with your inner archetypes is that it helps you to evolve, mature, individuate, and rediscover your True Nature. When it comes to learning how to forgive yourself, you will need some inner guidance. Excavating and connecting with your inner love archetypes will be a powerful way of setting yourself free.
For example, you might like to explore your own:
- Inner Quan Yin or Jesus (Compassion archetype)
- Inner Tara or Buddha (Wisdom archetype)
- Inner Mother Mary or Zeus (Mother/Father archetype)
You can call on these inner parts of your Soul for guidance, support, and help. Understand that these archetypes are universal sources of energy available to all of us. We each contain a seed of self-compassion within.
Read more about archetypes for further guidance.
6. What needs were unmet at the time?
As psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg writes,
Turning our attention to the part of the self which chose to act in the way that led to the present situation, we ask ourselves, “When I behaved in the way which I now regret, what need of mine was I trying to meet?” I believe that human beings are always acting in the service of needs and values. This is true whether the action does or does not meet the need, or whether it’s one we end up celebrating or regretting.
There is a reason why you acted the way you did in the past, and that’s because you were trying to get a need met (in the best way you knew how to in the moment).
So treat yourself with some compassion and explore what need you were trying to satisfy. Was it the need to be loved? The need to be respected? The need to be seen? The need to be heard? The need to feel safe? By understanding your underlying need, a certain level of guilt and shame is lifted.
7. Do a letting go ritual
At some point in your journey, you’ll know that it’s time to let go. You’ll be tired of the constant mental berating and guilt trips. You’ll crave for peace; for a new beginning. When this time comes, you’ll know you’re finally ready to let go.
Letting go tends to sound whimsical and vague to most people. But it doesn’t have to be. There are certain practices you can do to make this experience solid and memorable. I recommend practicing a simple fire release ritual to help you let go and move on.
To practice this fire ritual, you’ll need a piece of paper, a lighter (or box of matches), and a bowl of some kind (to catch the embers). Simply write what you’d like to let go of on your piece of paper. Then, light the paper on fire, drop it into your bowl, and watch it burn. As it burns, know that you are also burning away old patterns and habits. You are simultaneously experiencing a death and rebirth. You can find a more detailed instruction of this ritual in my full moon ritual article.
8. Practice self-love
Finally, take care of yourself. Be gentle and kind, knowing that it’s okay to make mistakes and be human. If you need help practicing self-love, by all means seek out counseling (sometimes it helps to have a friendly face there to hold space for you). If you notice harsh self-talk popping up, explore practices such as mindfulness, meditation, and affirmations.
I recommend reading my article on how to love yourself for more in-depth guidance.
To conclude, I’ll leave you with these words by author and teacher Debbie Ford:
The most important thing in self help is self-forgiveness: it’s when we relax into the vulnerability of our humanity and find compassion for our own internal struggles.
Remember, you are human. You make mistakes. And that’s okay. What matters now is how you use those bumps in the road to fuel your growth and transformation. Will you let them eat you alive or will you use them as motivation to keep evolving?