You’ve probably heard that one way to get over a past wrong is to forgive the perpetrator. But what if it feels like you’re the one at blame? What if the misdeeds you’re having a hard time moving past are ones you believe you’re responsible for?
Forgiveness is still the answer, says Everett L. Worthington Jr., Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. “A lot of people struggle with self-condemnation or self-blame because they’ve either done something they feel was wrong and they feel guilty, or because they feel that they’re wrong or defective in some way and they feel a sense of shame,” says Worthington. Of course, not all instances of self-blame are harmful. “There’s a reason we feel negative when we make a mistake,” says Worthington. The five minutes of frustration you feel after taking the wrong exit off the highway? It’s a cue to pay more attention the next time you’re driving.
But self-blame is worth addressing when your negative feelings about a big misstep in your life, or a series of smaller ones, become chronic. Worthington calls this “unforgiveness towards oneself,” or the inability to move forward from anger or pain from a past mistake, delaying any sense of closure. What does this look like? It’s feeling a deep pang of guilt about a long-ago affair each time your ex’s name comes up. Or flashing back, each time you fire up the grill, to the time you accidentally let your daughter get too close and burn her hand. This ongoing self-directed negativity makes you feel bad in the moment; long-term, it’s linked to a host of mental and physical ailments including depression, cardiovascular problems, and immune dysfunction. There’s often no way to undo past mistakes, but you can make amends with them.
The below process for responsible self-forgiveness, which Worthington details in his book, Moving Forward: Six Steps to Forgiving Yourself and Breaking Free from the Past, will help you learn to be kind to yourself, one step at a time.
STEP 1: RECEIVE FORGIVENESS FROM THE UNIVERSE
Take a step back and look at the big picture, not just those guilt-inspiring moments of your life. Remind yourself that everyone make mistakes, and that you, too, deserve to be forgiven. If you have a spiritual practice, revisiting your teachings and growing your connection with your beliefs can also help you let go.
STEP 2: REPENT AND REPAIR RELATIONSHIPS THAT WERE DAMAGED
For example, if you continue to feel guilt over causing a traffic accident, pay it forward by advocating for better safety precautions. If you regret not being there for your children when they were younger, ask what you can do now to make up for the past.
STEP 3: REDUCE RUMINATION
Giving past failures less time and attention is one way to help move forward. But you also need to examine the expectations and standards you hold for yourself. If you would forgive a friend for something, why hold a higher bar to clear for yourself?
STEP 4: ACT OUT A RITUAL OF SELF-FORGIVENESS
Recall the hurt this situation has caused. Then actually give yourself the empathy you would give someone else, along with an altruistic gift of self-forgiveness. It may help to go through a ritual of forgiveness. Write yourself a letter, give yourself the length of a hike to process your feelings one final time, or create a tangible expression of the painful experience, such as a sculpture in the sand or a pile of rocks in your garden, to commit to that self-forgiveness. Put time into this act and decide that when you are done, you’ll really let it go.
STEP 5: EMBRACE SELF-ACCEPTANCE
Even after you’ve forgiven yourself, you may have a hard time coming to terms with your past mistakes. Accept what you can’t change. Remind yourself that actions don’t define who you are. Getting stuck in the past makes it impossible to move forward to a better future.
STEP 6: RESOLVE TO LIVE WITH MORE CARE
We all make mistakes. By vowing not to repeat them, you’ll have an easier time making amends with what’s been done while being hopeful about what’s to come.