Taking the Steps to Forgive Yourself

In This Article

Forgiveness is often defined as a deliberate decision to let go of feelings of anger, resentment, and retribution toward someone who you believe has wronged you. However, while you may be quite generous in your ability to forgive others, you may be much harder on yourself.

Everyone makes mistakes, but learning how to learn from these errors, let go, move on, and forgive yourself is important for mental health and well-being. Learn more about why self-forgiveness can be beneficial and explore some steps that may help you become better at forgiving your own mistakes.

How to forgive yourself
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

How to Forgive Yourself

Self-forgiveness is not about letting yourself off the hook nor is it a sign of weakness. The act of forgiveness, whether you are forgiving yourself or someone who has wronged you, does not suggest that you are condoning the behavior.

Forgiveness means that you accept the behavior, you accept what has happened, and you are willing to move past it and move on with your life without ruminating over past events that cannot be changed. One therapeutic approach to self-forgiveness suggests that four key actions can be helpful.

The 4 R's of Self-Forgiveness

  1. Responsibility
  2. Remorse
  3. Restoration
  4. Renewal

Accept Responsibility

Forgiving yourself is about more than just putting the past behind you and moving on. It is about accepting what has happened and showing compassion to yourself.

Facing what you have done or what has happened is the first step toward self-forgiveness. It's also the hardest step. If you have been making excuses, rationalizing, or justifying your actions in order to make them seem acceptable, it is time to face up and accept what you have done.

By taking responsibility and accepting that you have engaged in actions that have hurt others, you can avoid negative emotions, such as excessive regret and guilt.

Express Remorse

As a result of taking responsibility, you may experience a range of negative feelings, including guilt and shame. When you've done something wrong, it's completely normal, even healthy, to feel guilty about it. These feelings of guilt and remorse can serve as a springboard to positive behavior change.

While guilt implies that you're a good person who did something bad, shame makes you see yourself as a bad person. This can bring up feelings of worthlessness which, left unresolved, can lead to addiction, depression, and aggression. Understand that making mistakes that you feel guilty about does not make you a bad person or undermine your intrinsic value.

Repair the Damage and Restore Trust

Making amends is an important part of forgiveness, even when the person you are forgiving is yourself. Just as you might not forgive someone else until they've made it up to you in some way, forgiving yourself is more likely to stick when you feel like you've earned it.

One way to move past your guilt is to take action to rectify your mistakes. Apologize if it is called for and look for ways that you can make it up to whomever you have hurt.

It may seem as if this portion of the process benefits only the person you've harmed, but there's something in it for you as well. Fixing your mistake means you'll never have to wonder if you could have done more.

Focus on Renewal

Everyone makes mistakes and has things for which they feel sorry or regretful. Falling into the trap of rumination, self-hatred, or even pity can be damaging and make it difficult to maintain your self-esteem and motivation.

Forgiving yourself often requires finding a way to learn from the experience and grow as a person. To do this, you need to understand why you behaved the way you did and why you feel guilty. What steps can you take to prevent the same behaviors again in the future? Yes, you might have messed up, but it was a learning experience that can help you make better choices in the future.

Limitations

While self-forgiveness is a powerful practice, it's important to recognize that this model is not intended for people who unfairly blame themselves for something they aren't responsible for.

People who have suffered abuse, trauma, or loss, for example, may feel shame and guilt even though they had no control. This can be particularly true when people feel they should have been able to predict, and therefore avoid, a negative outcome (an example of what is known as the hindsight bias).

Benefits

The standard axiom within psychology has been that forgiveness is a good thing and that it conveys a number of benefits, whether you have experienced a minor slight or have suffered a much more serious grievance. This includes both forgiving others as well as yourself.

Mental Health

Letting go and offering yourself forgiveness can help boost your feelings of wellness and improve your image of yourself. Numerous studies have demonstrated that when people practice self-forgiveness, they experience lower levels of depression and anxiety. Similarly, self-compassion is associated with higher levels of success, productivity, focus, and concentration.

Physical Health

The act of forgiveness can also positively impact your physical health. Research shows that forgiveness can improve cholesterol levels, reduce bodily pain, and blood pressure, and lower your risk of a heart attack.

Relationships

Having a compassionate and forgiving attitude toward yourself is also a critical component of successful relationships. Being able to forge close emotional bonds with other people is important, but so is the ability to repair those bonds when they become fraught or damaged.

One study found that both parties benefit from the "offending partner" showing self-forgiveness. Specifically, both partners tended to feel more relationship satisfaction and have fewer negative thoughts about each other as a result of genuine self-forgiveness.

Challenges

So what is it that makes self-forgiveness so difficult at times? Why do people often continue to punish and berate themselves over relatively minor mistakes? Engaging in actions that are not in line with our own values or self-beliefs can lead to feelings of guilt and regret—or worse, self-loathing.

Some people are just naturally more prone to rumination, which can make it easier to dwell on negative feelings. The fact that self-forgiveness involves acknowledging wrongdoing and admitting that you might need to change can make the process more challenging.

Lastly, people who are not yet ready to change may find it harder to truly forgive themselves. Instead, of admitting they might need to change, they might engage in a sort of pseudo-self-forgiveness by simply overlooking or excusing their behavior.

Potential Drawbacks

While self-forgiveness is generally thought of as a positive action that can help restore the sense of self, there is also research indicating that it can sometimes have a detrimental effect.The major pitfall of self-forgiveness is that it can sometimes reduce empathy for those who have been hurt by your actions.

Although self-forgiveness often relieves feelings of guilt, there are times this inward focus may make it more difficult to identify with others. You can avoid this by consciously practicing empathy with those who have been affected by your actions.

A Word From Verywell

Forgiving people who have hurt you can be challenging, but forgiving yourself can be just as difficult. It is important to remember that learning how to forgive yourself is not a one-size-fits-all process. It is never simple or easy, but working on this form of self-compassion can convey a number of possible health benefits. In addition to reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, self-forgiveness can also have positive effects on your physical health and relationships.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Peterson SJ, Van Tongeren DR, Womack SD, Hook JN, Davis DE, Griffin BJ. The benefits of self-forgiveness on mental health: Evidence from correlational and experimental research. J Posit Psychol. 2017;12(2):159-168. doi:10.1080/17439760.2016.1163407

  2. Nolen-Hoeksema S, Wisco BE, Lyubomirsky S. Rethinking Rumination. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2008;3(5):400-424. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6924.2008.00088.x

  3. Cornish MA, Wade NG. A therapeutic model of self-forgiveness with intervention strategies for counselors. Journal of Counseling & Development. 2015;93(1):96-104. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.2015.00185.x

  4. Zhang JW, Chen S, Tomova Shakur TK. From me to you: Self-compassion predicts acceptance of own and others' imperfections. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2020;46(2):228-242. doi:10.1177/0146167219853846

  5. Pierro A, Pica G, Giannini AM, Higgins ET, Kruglanski AW. "Letting myself go forward past wrongs": How regulatory modes affect self-forgiveness. PLoS ONE. 2018;13(3):e0193357. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0193357

  6. Rahim M, Patton R. The association between shame and substance use in young people: a systematic review. PeerJ. 2015;3:e737. doi:10.7717/peerj.737

  7. Whited MC, Wheat AL, Larkin KT. The influence of forgiveness and apology on cardiovascular reactivity and recovery in response to mental stress. J Behav Med. 2010;33(4):293-304. doi:10.1007/s10865-010-9259-7

  8. Conversano C, Rotondo A, Lensi E, Della Vista O, Arpone F, Reda MA. Optimism and its impact on mental and physical well-being. Clin Pract Epidemiol Ment Health. 2010;6:25-9. doi:10.2174/1745017901006010025

  9. Taylor TF. The influence of shame on posttrauma disorders: Have we failed to see the obvious?Eur J Psychotraumatol. 2015;6:28847. doi:10.3402/ejpt.v6.28847

  10. Roese NJ, Vohs KD. Hindsight biasPerspect Psychol Sci. 2012;7(5):411-26. doi:10.1177/1745691612454303

  11. Rasmussen KR, Stackhouse M, Boon SD, Comstock K, Ross R. Meta-analytic connections between forgiveness and health: The moderating effects of forgiveness-related distinctions. Psychol Health. 2019;34(5):515-534. doi:10.1080/08870446.2018.1545906

  12. Pelucchi S, Paleari FG, Regalia C, Fincham FD. Self-forgiveness in romantic relationships: It matters to both of us. J Fam Psychol. 2013;27(4):541-549. doi:10.1037/a0032897

  13. Callan MJ, Kay AC, Dawtry RJ. Making sense of misfortune: Deservingness, self-esteem, and patterns of self-defeat. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2014;107(1):142-162. doi:10.1037/a0036640

  14. Breines J. The Healthy Way to Forgive Yourself. Greater Good Magazine. August 23, 2012.