5 Ways to Begin Practicing Self-Forgiveness
Have you ever said or done something that you’ve struggled to forgive yourself for?
I once made a decision that left me completely blindsided by my own actions. It countered many of my values and was completely out of alignment with who I believed myself to be. I spiraled into a deep, year-long depression brought on by my inability to forgive myself for what I had done.
“Who am I?”
That thought rang in my head over and over. I’d sleep most of the time I was home just to avoid thinking. It took a very long time for me to step back from the situation and acknowledge that I may have done a “bad” thing, but that did not make me a “bad” person.
It can often be most difficult to forgive ourselves when we feel we’ve done something out of line with our character, morals, or values. When we’ve done something that causes us to question our very identity. “Who am I, that I could do this?”
We question and punish ourselves for doing something we never imagined we’d do, or even thought ourselves capable of...
According to Brene Brown, guilt is a focus on behavior, the acknowledgment that we’ve done a “bad” thing. Shame, on the other hand, focuses on the self and says, “I am bad.” Guilt can benefit us because it allows us to hold ourselves accountable in a productive way; we deeply feel and accept that we’ve done something out of alignment with our values, and then we also make a choice to learn and grow. Shame, however, cripples us. The guilt moves into a deeper realm that is no longer productive to our growth and evolution. We feel shame when we believe that we are bad and something is wrong with us, so we think we don’t deserve love or forgiveness because of what we did or didn’t do.
Shame says, “I am not worthy, and so I cannot forgive myself.” This is dangerous. When we fail to forgive ourselves, and instead choose to believe “I’m a bad person,” we become stuck in a cycle of doing the very things we can’t forgive ourselves for because we’ve come to believe it’s a part of who we are. We feel shame, we punish ourselves and tell ourselves we’re unworthy, and the cycle continues on and on.
Shame is a liar, my love. You are so worthy. You deserve all the love in the world, including your own.
Self-forgiveness requires us to change how we think about ourselves.
Did you know our brains and bodies become trained to act in certain ways because of our thoughts? The more you tell yourself you are unworthy and undeserving, the more your brain alters its neuron patterns to support that belief and keep you in a state of suffering. Repeating these thoughts to yourself is training your brain and body to believe that you either want or need the conditions of suffering caused by your attachment to it. It will become natural for you to exist in a state of suffering, and ultimately, you will be responsible for creating that cycle.
Here are 5 questions to ask yourself, along with actionable advice, to begin practicing the difficult but valuable art of self-forgiveness...
1. Why do I believe I don’t deserve to be forgiven?
What are the limiting beliefs I’m holding onto that prohibit me from letting go of the pain and shame?
I’d convinced myself that one bad decision made me a bad person, and so I believed I was unworthy and undeserving of forgiveness.
What limiting beliefs do you carry with your shame? Where do they come from? What makes you believe those things? Dig deep into the why behind your perceived unworthiness. Is it really connected to this thing you did or didn’t do? Or did that event simply allow you to reinforce a pre-existing belief of unworthiness?
Actionable Advice: In his book Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself, Dr. Joe Dispenza combines quantum physics, neuroscience, brain chemistry, biology, and genetics to explain how our thoughts impact us. We literally have the capacity to create our own reality, and Dr. Dispenza teaches us how. I highly recommend reading this book in order to begin undoing unhealthy patterns and reprogramming your brain to no longer believe that you are unworthy of anything.
2. Why did I do it?
What was really behind what I did? Were my intentions truly bad or hurtful?
We usually know when something is “wrong,” but we do it anyway. At that very moment, we have some reason for our action or decision. We are filling a void, expressing an insecurity, afraid to lose someone or something, or maybe it just felt really good, and all we really needed was to feel really good, even if just for a moment.
Please, stop punishing yourself, my love. Hurt people hurt people, you know? That includes you. Sometimes we find the willpower to forgive others by understanding they hurt us because they themselves are hurting, so it’s ok. You must do the same with yourself. Why did you do what you did? There was a reason, and it was likely connected to your own pain or fear. Punishing yourself only creates more of what you don’t want.
Actionable Advice: Make a list of all the people you believe you’ve really hurt and how. Go through the list and write down what was happening in your life at the time. What situations and circumstances were you experiencing? How were you feeling about yourself and your life in general? Try to understand where it all came from, have compassion with yourself for whatever it is you were feeling or going through at the time, and think about how you can avoid repeating the same cycles.
3. Have I tried to make amends?
Did I ever own up and take responsibility? Did I apologize or try to set it right in any way?
Sometimes our regretful actions haunt us because the issue has never been directly addressed, and we create an entire narrative around a set of assumptions that may or may not be true.
Several years ago, a friend of mine wrote to me to apologize for a situation that happened in college. He said he felt so bad for so long and never intended to hurt me in any way. Honestly, I had no idea what he was talking about. I couldn’t remember this situation or scenario at all. Either it hadn’t actually upset me, or I wasn’t upset enough to hold on to it.
He worried for years about what happened, while I couldn’t even remember what he was referring to. The irony is that he felt bad because he assumed I felt bad, which wasn’t the case!
On the other hand, maybe someone else is still hurting about a situation because we never addressed it. Maybe an apology is all that’s needed for both people to feel released.
Actionable Advice: Write a letter to the person you feel you’ve hurt. Apologize. Take responsibility. Remember the writing exercise from above? Tell that person what place of pain or fear you were coming from. Let them know it wasn’t personal. That thing you did to hurt them was actually about YOU, and they may need to know that. You can do this as a reflective exercise for yourself, or you can choose to share it with that person afterward. It’s up to you.
4. What has manifested in my life because of my shame?
What has shame made me feel about myself? How have I been punishing myself?
Our emotions must be dealt with. If we avoid them or bottle them up, they’ll find a way to be seen and heard by us. Our guilt and shame cry out for our attention, but we often don’t pay attention and fail to recognize the root of our suffering.
I recently began having explosive, volatile outbursts of anger. After a lot of reflection and utilizing some of these practices, I realized this was happening because I was holding on to shame about recently realizing that I was a lot like my abusive father, and in punishing myself for that, I began to take on even more and more of his qualities I disliked, including his explosive anger. Once I realized the cause and faced my shame, the outbursts stopped happening.
Are you aware of how your shame has impacted you? Your thoughts and your behaviors? What suffering has shame caused in your life?
Actionable Advice: I invite you to do this guided meditation of sorts. Lay down, close your eyes, and imagine what it would look and feel like to live without your shame. Visualize it down to the details of your clothes, your posture, your facial expressions. How would you move, walk, and dance differently without your shame? Feel what it’s like to live your life with no shame. Try to do this daily, maybe just 3-5 minutes when you first wake up. Allow yourself to soak in your own beautiful power.
5. What can I learn from this?
How can I transform this pain into something meaningful? How can I use this to better my life?
Forgiving ourselves doesn’t mean we condone the mistake, but rather we release its power over us. Mistakes are learning opportunities, and by finding the blessing in what happened, we may have the opportunity to be released from the burden of it. Hold on to what you learned, let go of all the rest.
My decision that later threw me into a year-long depression became an opportunity to grow in empathy once I learned to forgive myself. My biggest takeaway in this journey of self-forgiveness has been to realize that we are all, including me, capable of things that fall outside of what we believe to be good and right. My failures have provided me with a wide and deep lens for compassion. I can understand the harmful actions of another person on a deep level because I now know what I’m capable of, but I also know the why behind it. I now know from my own experience that when someone does something “wrong,” they have their own why, even if I can’t see or understand it.
The supreme act of forgiveness is when you can forgive yourself for all the wounds you’ve created in your own life.” Miguel Angel Ruiz
Are you ready to leave behind your shame and all the pain and suffering it’s caused you? Forgiving yourself will be one of the bravest and most rewarding things you will ever do in your life, and you will forever thank yourself for it. I hope this resource will help you on that journey.
You are worthy. You are deserving. You are loved. And, you are not alone.
Lena Papadopoulos is a heart-driven international consultant and facilitator who helps schools, organizations, businesses, and individuals create intentional, transformative travel experiences. Lena believes responsible global engagement begins with the purposeful pursuit of self-discovery and self-awareness. The goal of her work is to create a safe space where individuals can explore their inner world while also cultivating and developing meaningful connections with others.
With a background in sociology and cultural anthropology, Lena is an award-winning intercultural educator with 10+ years of experience in education, leadership development, community building, curriculum development, program design, and facilitation in nearly a dozen countries around the world.
You can connect with Lena on Instagram, learn more about her work on her website, or feel free to email her at firstname.lastname@example.org