Forgiving Yourself When You've Messed Up...Like, Big Time

Someone recently asked about ways to move forward and learn to forgive yourself after a particularly difficult mistake or poor decision.  This can be especially hard to do when you feel you are reliving the consequences of decisions for some time after you made them.  Here are four steps to help you begin to forgive yourself and move past mistakes. 

Step One

Acknowledge you are human.  The first step to forgiving yourself after a mistake is to acknowledge that you are a human being and sometimes you get it wrong.  To be fully honest, sometimes, as humans, we can get it really wrong and that can be hard to live with.  Somehow, seeing our own humanity can feel so much worse than someone else’s. Often we can acknowledge that forgiveness is important, including forgiveness of ourselves, but we tend to feel that what we’ve done doesn’t count and may be unforgivable.  We think, either consciously or subconsciously, that we can’t forgive ourselves for that, whatever that may be.  We may feel we knew better or, at least, should have.  Whatever the thoughts are, we struggle with accepting that sometimes being human means messing up...big time.  Forgiving yourself and accepting your humanity, though, does not mean letting yourself off the hook.  It’s simply acknowledging that you don’t always get it right and that that is the nature of humanity.  There’s a space between “oh, well, no big deal” and “I must beat myself up for this forever”.  You can take accountability for where you went wrong, and all that that means, and simultaneously choose to move forward in life.

Step Two

Do some damage control, if you can.  Sometimes when we make a mistake, we can feel paralyzed.  We are ashamed and feel guilty and, really, just want to move on and, maybe even, pretend it didn’t happen.  We can sometimes hope the person or people we wronged will just move on as well. We may feel bringing it up with the them can make things worse.  In some instances, that may be true but usually ignoring or minimizing your mistake can let the damage spiral.  It can make others involved feel you don’t care or aren’t sorry when the truth is that you do feel pretty bad about it.  Take ownership of your mistake.  Apologize sincerely to anyone affected.  Attempt to make amends in whatever reasonable way makes sense.  This approach won’t change the fact that it happened but it can possibly stop the effects of your mistake or, at least, minimize them in some way.

Apologizing and attempting to make appropriate amends can also help you feel better about yourself.  If you’ve made a mistake and have not attempted to reconcile your role in the situation, you may be carrying the unresolved guilt of your decisions and behavior.  Addressing your actions, and trying to make up for things in a way that makes sense for the situation, can help you know that you have done what you can to right your wrongs.  It can feel good to take ownership of your own behavior.  Fully mending the issue may not be feasible or appropriate in every situation but facing up to what you’ve done is always a good first step.  Own your mistake and sincerely do what you can to fix it.  Even if it has been a while since the situation occurred, it’s okay to go to the person or people and say, “I should have done this a while ago, but I’m really sorry for back when I …..” Then know that, short of turning back the hands of time, you have genuinely done your best to rectify or apologize for the situation and can feel free to forgive yourself and move forward.

Sometimes, though, the person most affected by our mistakes or decisions is our self.  In that case, the same ideas apply.  Try to figure out appropriate ways to make up for what you feel you may have lost by making a particular mistake or decision, if possible. Acknowledge that you hurt yourself with your behavior and don’t try to cancel or minimize the feelings you’re having as a result. Process them and then actively remind yourself that you forgive you for not knowing better or for falling short in this particular instance.

Step Three

Do some soul searching.  After experiencing the guilt or shame of a mistake then owning up to it and making amends where possible, the last thing you want to do is make that same mistake again.  We are human so sometimes we make mistakes a few times before we learn.  But the best way to avoid the pain of living with our poor decisions over and over is to figure out what made us make them in the first place.  This requires some insightful thought and real honesty with yourself.  It may help to talk with someone who knows you well and whom you trust.  Journaling your thoughts and feelings can also help.  The process of writing things out while you think through them can help gain insight as well as offer you a way to express what you have been holding inside, if talking to someone is not an immediate option or always preferable.  If your bad decisions are really weighing you down or you can’t seem to figure out why you’re making them, a therapist can also be helpful.  An outside, unbiased influence can be quite useful when processing our own behavior.

Step Four

Choose to move forward.  You can spend a literal lifetime living under the guilt and shame of your past.  It can become a habit to relive the thoughts and feelings of a particular mistake or time period and the resulting fallout. It can almost begin to be like second nature living with those feelings.  When living this way has begun to feel automatic, it requires a conscious choice to release the hold these feelings have on you.  Once you have acknowledged your humanity, attempted to make amends, and done some soul searching, the last step is to choose to release the guilt and shame and actively forgive yourself.  When the thoughts and feelings begin to surface, give yourself permission to release them.  Remind yourself that you don’t have to keep traveling this same path over and over.  You can choose a different route.  Remind yourself of what you know.  One, you are human and humans make mistakes, sometimes big time ones.  Two, you apologized and tried, or were able, to make reasonable amends which is all that’s in your control at this point.  Three, you have attempted to grow and learn from the experience in an effort to do your best not to repeat it.  Thoughts or urges to continue the cycle of shaming yourself and holding on to guilt may seem to come from out of nowhere and feel out of your control.  There may even be someone else bringing up the past and attempting to shame you.  However, you get to decide if you will entertain those thoughts or choose to release them.  Actively remind yourself that you can release them and you can move forward.  Soon enough, with repetition, you will begin to automatically release the feelings of guilt in the same way that you had previously entertained it automatically.

Just as every good thing we have ever done doesn’t define the whole of who we are, neither does every bad thing.  You get to be a whole person full of beauty and flaws.  Embrace your full humanity by appreciating your success as well as learning from your mistakes.  You can learn to forgive yourself and allow your past to be just that.