A good friend comes to you distraught and hating herself because she lied to cover her own mistake at work, and ended up getting a coworker fired. How would you respond? Would you attack your friend with scathing criticism, tell her she’s worthless and absolutely right to hate herself? Not likely. You’d be more disposed to offer comfort, understanding and wise counsel on making amends and moving forward.
Now, turn that on its head. What if you were the one who had harmed your coworker? What kind of dialogue would you have with yourself as you worked through the consequences of your behavior? Odds are, you’d take a less merciful approach. In the words of Sharon A. Hartman, a clinical trainer at Caron Foundation in Pennsylvania, “No one can beat us up better than we beat ourselves up.” (1)
Forgive yourself for a healthier mind and body
Forgiving the self is linked to psychological health. Those able to practice self-compassion – a healthy self-acceptance that allows for a clear view of one’s own strengths and weaknesses – experience greater happiness and optimism, as well as decreased anxiety and depressive symptoms. (2) Inability to forgive oneself is also linked to suicide attempts, eating disorders and alcohol abuse. (5)
Just as stress and anxiety negatively affect our physical health, self-compassion helps us stay physically healthier, too. In one study, as self-judgment increased and self-kindness decreased, physical symptoms were found to increase. (2)
Try. Fail. Learn. Repeat.
Nobody’s perfect. You’ve heard it before. The nature of the human family is that we are doomed to make many mistakes and blessed to learn from them. Remembering to look at our own errors through those lenses helps us be more self-forgiving.
When a toddler falls, we encourage her to get back up and try again. When we fall off of life’s proverbial horse, we sometimes wallow in so much self-recrimination, shame and regret that our horse walks off without us. We must consciously treat ourselves as we would treat that toddling child: we own our failures, we learn from them, and then we climb right back on the horse.
Own your mistakes
Forgiving oneself doesn’t mean brushing your bad behavior under the rug and trying to forget it. It requires owning the mistake and trying to make amends. If it isn’t possible to make amends directly, figure out another way to make reparations. Reggie Shaw, a Utah resident who texted while driving and killed two people, could not adequately make amends to those individuals or their families. On his journey to forgive himself, he became an activist to teach others about the dangers of texting and driving. (3)
A few tricks for forgiving yourself:
- Try the best friend trick–if your best friend came to you and told you she had done whatever you have been beating yourself up over, what would you say to her? Talk to yourself the same way.
- Tell your damaging internal voices to take a hike. Pop singer Pink has been attributed with the words, “If I could change one thing about myself, it would be the voices in my head. They don’t like me.” (4) Pick the most negative voice, give it a name like Agatha, and tell Agatha to put a sock in it.
- Keep shame at bay, that damaging internal emotion that tells you that your bad actions make you a bad person. Remember we have to fail to learn, and that good people can make bad mistakes.
- If you have a religious tradition, turn to your faith’s teachings on forgiveness and the worth of the individual soul. Talk to a pastor or a trusted friend with the same beliefs.
- If the inability to forgive the self has become entrenched and you can’t seem to do it alone, a good therapist can help you get there–don’t give up!
Click here for a great blog on loving and accepting yourself:
Check out the damaging effects of shame:
Read about a woman who struggled to forgive herself:
- Lawrence, Jean. “Learning to Forgive Yourself,” WebMD, accessed 8 Aug 2016. http://www.webmd.com/balance/features/learning-to-forgive-yourself
- Hall, Cathy W., et. al. “The Role of Self-Compassion in Physical and Psychological Well-Being,” The Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied. Published online 20 May 2013. http://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/Physicalpsychwellbeing.pdf
- Horiuchi, Vince. “Tragic Utah accident profiled in new anti-texting YouTube video,” The Salt Lake Tribune (www.saltlaketribune.com). 9 Aug 2016. http://archive.sltrib.com/story.php?ref=/sltrib/money/56765440-79/texting-driving-shaw-dell.html.csp
- Breines, Juliana, “The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself.” Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, University of California, Berkely. 23 Aug 2012. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_healthy_way_to_forgive_yourself