How To Forgive Yourself
Dear Me, I Am Sorry.
It was June, and we were shopping in Macy’s department store, picking up last-minute items for my wedding. I don’t remember what exactly caused me to see red, but I suddenly lashed out at my sister. It was an embarrassing scene, one well outside of my character. And I fumed and plowed my way through the mall, refusing to apologize until hours later.
Even though my sister accepted my apology, and we decided to move on, the forgiveness ended there. I didn’t realize I needed to forgive myself, too, and I subsequently carried anger and shame about my actions that day for nearly a decade.
Self-forgiveness, I’ve found, is a practice rooted in both humility and freedom. It’s a chance to learn from the past and recognize our humanity—a humanity that is beautiful but still flawed. Because sometimes we hurt ourselves and others, and we make mistakes. This is a universal experience that’s entirely common but one that still leaves us feeling guilt, resentment, and shame.
With mindful practices, though, we can move forward in growth and free ourselves from these past experiences and the negative thought patterns that can manifest after. We can offer ourselves the same compassion we afford to others, like the love and sympathy my sister offered me. I deserve that, as does she. Because choosing not to forgive ourselves doesn’t only impact us as the guilty party, it can also harm our relationships.
Why We May Need To Forgive Ourselves
There are a few circumstances in which we may need to practice self-forgiveness. In my case, I needed to forgive myself for hurting another person. It’s easy to assume that, once someone has forgiven us, the conflict is over. But two apologies must often take place after a harmful exchange: One is for the victim, while the other is for the culprit. While we can’t control how others will respond to our apologies, releasing ourselves from past mistakes means we can let go of self-resentment.
Feeling longstanding anger towards ourselves doesn’t serve anyone. Forgoing self-forgiveness can allow our mistakes to have power over us and can negatively impact everyone in our circle. It’s not always obvious that we need to forgive ourselves for hurting someone else—I didn’t even know I was carrying guilt until long after the exchange with my sister.
We might also need to forgive ourselves when we’ve made a mistake. Mistakes are normal, and making them is part of being human. But sometimes, our decisions can cause stress or pain to ourselves or others. This can leave us feeling frustrated in the aftermath. (How could I have done that? What was I thinking?)
And when we’re unkind to our bodies or have forgotten to care for ourselves through simple practices like sleep and hydration, that’s worth pause, too. It’s okay when this happens; we all do it. I especially feel frustrated with myself when I buy into harmful body-image messages (You don’t really believe that stuff, so why are you shaming your own thighs?). Not only am I talking negatively to myself, but I then shame myself for indulging that negative self-talk. It’s a never-ending shame cycle—feeling shame for feeling shame. But self-forgiveness invites us to extend the same love we offer others to ourselves.
How To Practice Self-Forgiveness
Sometimes we don’t even know we’re in need of self-forgiveness, which is why I like to look to my body and ask it for guidance in the forgiveness journey. Do I feel panic or shame when an old memory comes to mind? Or does my body tense up when I’m around someone I’ve had hurtful exchanges with? This may be a sign that I’m in need of some self-forgiveness.
1. Start With Self-Compassion
Seeking forgiveness can often feel as if we’re exposing ourselves—admitting shortcomings takes courage and strength, along with a whole lot of humility. But none of us are perfect, and we all make mistakes. And just like one would choose to hold space for a close friend in their most vulnerable moment, we too can offer ourselves compassion and warmth.
Studies actually show that self-blame can contribute to anxiety and depression, which is even more a reason to replace that negative self-talk with compassion. It’s hard to sit in our messes, and it’s even harder to offer ourselves grace—so know you’re not alone in the challenge. But we can thank ourselves for choosing to show up and do the work necessary for growth and healing.
2. Offer Yourself An Apology
Apologies are an essential part of forgiveness, and they can act as a step towards accountability for our future actions. When we turn our apology inward, we’re not only apologizing for the harm we inflicted but also for hanging onto shame and anger. We’re recognizing that we need to let go—perhaps we’ve needed to for a while now. And in this way, a self-apology can be a form of self-care.
For the apology to come full circle, we then need to accept it—though acceptance doesn’t mean letting ourselves off the hook. Like in our relationships with others, we don’t always forgive and forget, and we can establish new ground rules as we move forward and rebuild self-trust.
How to offer and accept your own apology:
Begin by naming the actions or thoughts that weren’t so helpful. If you’ve hurt another person, acknowledge this too. I find the What, Why, How model makes this process straightforward: What are you apologizing for? Why did you make the choice you did? How can you reconcile this decision and learn from it?
You can even try apologizing to yourself in the mirror, looking into your eyes as you speak. If that feels like too much, you can also record an audio apology and listen back to it. If you prefer journaling, you can write yourself a letter. It may feel silly, but try dialoguing with yourself as you accept your own apology. It can be as simple as “Dear self, thank you for your apology, and I forgive you.” You could also try responding to yourself with a journal entry or letter.
3. Learn From The Past
Finally, we can learn from the past. We can ask our former selves what lessons we’d like to take with us into the future. Perhaps we discovered that negative self-talk doesn’t make us feel good or that gossiping about others doesn’t foster deeper relationships. Instead of judging ourselves, we can simply acknowledge our history and choose to walk in a new direction.
Remember: It’s not helpful to wallow in the feelings that don’t serve us. We made the decisions we made, and we can’t go back in time. But we can let the past provide directions for the future. Those former decisions led us here, to this moment. We wouldn’t be who we are without them.
And, just as self-forgiveness starts by saying, “I’m sorry,” we can end our practice by saying, “I see you.” We can tell ourselves that we are seen in all of our feelings and flaws, our decisions and shortcomings, and we can acknowledge them. We can recognize the actions that haven’t served us or others, and we can take steps to move on, recognizing that every choice and mistake has led us here.
Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.