How many major regrets are you carrying inside of you just now? Have you ever hurt another person with your actions and you sincerely wish you hadn’t? Ever been stuck with knots in your stomach, feeling guilty and ashamed for screwing up big time? We have all been there at one or several points in our life. We have been wronged and we have wronged others. And sometimes it’s so much easier to forgive someone else than to forgive ourselves.
If we get stuck in our guilt, shame, and regret over a past mistake, though, it’s like keeping an emotional wound open. It will fester away for weeks, months, and sometimes even years. It negatively impacts our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing and can even develop into or trigger serious illnesses.
If you are struggling to forgive yourself, this blog post is for you. We will look at the implications of holding onto regret and guilt as well as the benefits of forgiving yourself. We will also explain why it is sometimes so hard to forgive yourself and introduce some strategies that might help you on your journey towards self-forgiveness. No matter if you are trying to forgive yourself for a minor mistake or major screw-up, the steps that will get you there are the same.
Why holding onto regret and guilt around past mistakes keeps you stuck
We are always wiser in hindsight. However, hindsight also distorts the past and doesn’t necessarily allow us to understand what happened and why. Maybe you shared a secret that wasn’t yours to share, maybe you took something that wasn’t yours to take or you cheated on your husband and wife and feel like you are the worst person in the entire world. You simply can’t forgive yourself for what you have done. Maybe you even feel you don’t deserve to be forgiven and the guilt and shame you feel are slowly eating you alive.
As a result, you may be going over whatever happened, whatever you did in an endless loop in your mind and keep beating yourself up over the mistake you made. You may spend a significant amount of your head- and heart space, of your energy on self-loathing and self-punishment. This will not only keep you stuck in feeling upset, resentful and/or angry. It will also negatively impact your stress level, your overall mental health as well as your enjoyment of life. In fact, guilt is such a powerful emotion that it can cut off “important systems in your body that are responsible for healing.” You are doing physical and emotional damage to yourself. Keeping yourself stuck in guilt and shame isn’t serving anyone, least of all yourself.
It is a misconception that self-forgiveness means condoning your behaviour and letting yourself off the hook. Neither is forgiving yourself a sign of weakness nor does it mean that you will forget what you’ve done. It is, however, crucial for your mental health and emotional wellbeing to let go of the guilt and shame and move on in your life.
The benefits of forgiving yourself:
- Inner peace (frees you from guilt, anger and sadness) —> better sleep
- Reduces stress and prevents anxiety and depression
- It’s empowering to take responsibility for your life choices —> boosts self-esteem
- Personal growth and improved coping skills
- Strengthens relationships and helps us connect on a deeper level
- Frees up time and energy —> chance to be more productive and improves focus
- Can reduce blood pressure and therefore lower your risk of a heart attack, improve cholesterol levels and reduce physical pain
- Overall improved sense of wellbeing through self-acceptance
Why is it hard to forgive yourself?
Forgiving yourself for a big mistake or major screw-up can be incredibly hard. Oftentimes, we hold ourselves to a higher standard and are more critical of ourselves than we are of others. And if you are suffering from anxiety or depression to begin with and/or are prone to rumination, have low self-esteem or struggle with perfectionism, you may find it particularly hard.
In order to forgive yourself, you need kindness, compassion, understanding, patience and humility. You can cultivate all of these within you but it’s a gradual process rather than a one-time choice you need to make. It helps if you believe that you are worthy of the good things in your life and of being loved. There is a crucial distinction between doing something bad or wrong and owning up to it, taking responsibility for it by making amends or necessary changes to prevent you from making the same mistake again or believing that you are bad or something is inherently wrong with you as a person. The latter will lead to feelings of remorse and self-loathing which are not a productive way to cope whereas the former is empowering. It helps you realise that you are not defined by your past actions and you can grow, learn and become wiser through acknowledging your mistake(s).
Tips and strategies to forgive yourself
First of all, please remember to be kind towards and patient with yourself as you work on transforming your guilt and shame about your past mistake into acceptance and self-forgiveness. You cannot rush the process of moving through your emotions and growing from your mistakes. You are allowed to take time for your healing.
Don’t fuel the guilt by reliving the situation in your head over and over and over again. If you find yourself stuck in a self-loathing cycle, try taking a walk in nature, going for a run or engaging in other forms of exercise, taking a shower, putting on your favourite song and dancing to it, etc. – anything, really, to haul yourself back to the present moment and get you out of your head and (fully present) into your body.
Take responsibility by acknowledging your mistake out loud alongside what you learned from it and give yourself permission to feel all the emotions that come with that.
Accept the past as well as the consequences: This is what happened and this is the current situation you find yourself in physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually because of what you did or didn’t do, what you said or didn’t say. Remind yourself that we are all doing the best we can with the knowledge and tools/coping strategies we have at any given moment.
Have a conversation with yourself – bring honesty and curiosity to the table: You could have this chat with yourself while you’re out on a walk, in front of the mirror or through writing a journal. Ask yourself:
- How am I sabotaging myself?
- What thought patterns keep me stuck?
- What do I find particularly hard to face when I think about this mistake?
- What is my inner critic saying and is it really true?
- What factual evidence is there that it is true?
- How would I treat my best friend or my child if he/she came to me and confessed this mistake? What advice would I give him/her?
- What can I do to prevent myself from (re)acting in the same way again in the future?
- What will help/allow me to make better choices next time?
- How has the experience changed me? In what ways have I become wiser or stronger because of it?
- What lesson do I still have to learn or embrace?
- What are my strengths and skills?
- What do I like about myself?
Make amends: If you have (re)acted unskilfully make amends and correct your behaviour moving forward. This goes beyond simply saying “I am sorry.” If you can, try and repair the damage you have caused. If you have hurt someone else, ask them what they need/want to move on rather than assuming what will help them most. A study found that forgiving yourself is easier once you’ve made amends.
Take a break: If at any point the process becomes overwhelming, allow yourself to put it on hold. Practice self-care by sleeping well, eating regularly and healthily, moving your body, practising mindfulness and connecting with people you love and feel safe with, people who won’t judge you and accept you as you are – perfectly imperfect. Return to working towards self-forgiveness when you feel it benefits you again.
Let yourself be seen: You might feel like hiding away indefinitely and might have been avoiding people. Keeping your shame a secret is, however, the most dangerous thing you can do. Researcher and professor Dr. Brené Brown has studied shame for over two decades and found that the only way to resolve it is when we open up about it. So, be courageous and show up vulnerably with someone you trust. Choose wisely who you talk to but do talk to someone. Shame can’t survive when it’s out in the open and met with empathy and compassion. If you don’t have anyone you can talk to, consider getting professional help from a therapist or counsellor.
New Life Portugal
At New Life Portugal, we offer a safe and nurturing environment for healing and personal growth. We know from years of research that we can shift our neurologically embedded patterns when we mindfully and compassionately bring awareness to our present moment experience – and then practice change. Our wellness retreat and mindfulness centre is nestled into the mountains of the stunning Serra Da Estrela. It is the perfect location to relax your nervous system while you benefit from a program that offers a rare combination of meditation, yoga, counselling, coaching, fitness, nature, and mindful community life. The latter has been proven to be a key component of wellness as it provides a sense of ‘meaningful belonging’ or can help you feel like you’re contributing in a purposeful way.
At New Life Portugal, you can expect to be both challenged, and nourished. Our team of experts will support you every step of the way and help you find the perfect balance, so that you can make all the right shifts, in all the right places, for your specific goals. If you have any further questions or would like to enquire about a stay with us, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.