How can I forgive myself?

Something happened this summer that I cannot forgive myself for. When I think about what happened, I feel ashamed and guilty even though my loved ones forgave me.

Robin Landwehr, DBH, LPCC, NCC
Robin Landwehr, DBH, LPCC, NCC
Mental Health in a Primary Care Setting

Hello, and thank you for your question. Guilt is one of those things that nearly everyone has experienced at one time or another, and it can feel like a huge weight around your neck. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we can give you some words of wisdom that will make it all go away. However, I will give you some ideas and hopefully this will help.

One of the things that we know about guilt is that it doesn't usually do much to help us in the long-run. People may make changes for a short-term period of time because they feel guilty about something they did, but usually they will go back to their old behaviors if they don't have something else to help them change permanently, such as a new skill. So, guilt doesn't necessarily help us. In fact, as I write this someone out there is eating an entire key lime pie because they feel guilty about falling off their diet. Someone may be drinking alcohol because they feel guilty about drinking alcohol. For whatever reason, this is just a common thing that we do.

Now accountability is different than guilt. Accountability can actually be constructive.  When you hold yourself accountable you can admit that you have done something wrong. That it hurt others and you deeply regret it. That you are prepared to take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again. That you have done what you can to make amends, if necessary. That you are sorry. And then you move on.

Why is moving on necessary? Well, for one thing, it doesn't usually help the people who you hurt. In fact, someone's guilty behavior may serve to remind the people who were hurt, over and over again, about what happened. Guilt is usually 100% about us, and not about those we hurt. Also, guilt can lead us to behave in ways that may even hurt people more.

Having said all of that, guilt is a normal human emotion. Sometimes we experience it for a while and it goes away. Sometimes we need help to work through it. There are many self-help books about forgiving yourself. You can try Amazon to find some, or consider getting help from a counselor.

Be well,

Robin Landwehr, DBH, LPC, NCC

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Julissa Sparks
Julissa Sparks
Healing Minds for Wholeness

A lot of times it is not about forgiveness but learning from experiences. As an example, as a child we continously fall in an effort to learn how to walk. Then when we begin walking we know we have to put one foot in front of the other in order to move forward. Experiences allow us to grow, find a balance and what to do and what not to do in order to move forward. On the positive side you now know the consequences as for your actions not to take the same course. Forgiveness comes with time as you "learn how to walk again."

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Sonya Wilson
Sonya Wilson
Licensed Professional Counselor

Realize that you are human, not perfect and will make the wrong decisions at times.   That is OK, we all have.  However, the best way is to say OK, I did it, learned from it, will not do that again.  EVER!!!  You can get pass it; grow from it. 

Unfortunately, we forgive others faster than we do ourselves because we hold ourselves to higher standards or expected better behavior from ourselves.  It can be embarrassing, hurtful, almost unforgiving at times.  But how do you forgive yourself? Take a Deep Breathe..... and then acknowledge that you did something wrong, acknowledge it, and say to self,  "I forgive me".  Just like you would say to someone else.   This starts the process of forgiving.

Also ask yourself these questions:   What lesson did I learn?  What would I have done differently?  What will be a trigger that will make me do that again, if I happened to be weak or tempted?  Avoid or prepare for those triggers....  

Forgiving yourself will set you free from the prison you have put yourself in.  You would start back living. 

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Reid Stell
Reid Stell
Reid Stell Counseling

What a beautiful discussion of guilt and shame Lynda offers! Those two demons start out as pesky and little when we are young, then grow with us to become quite formidable. I'd like to throw in a technique I learned from Randy Rausch (author of The Last Lecture) called The 3-Step Apology. I teach this important bit of wisdom to my clients when they need to apologize to someone else but more importantly when they need to forgive themselves.

Yes, when we have trouble forgiving ourselves we sometimes forget that there is part of us that just doesn't know how to apologize effectively. Here goes:

Step One: Say what you did and the damage it caused.

Step Two: Say you're sorry and accept full responsibility (no excuses, no explanation, no defensiveness: “It was all my fault.”)

Step Three: Ask what you can do to repair the damage.

Step Three is the one many of us didn’t learn growing up. And when we add it to an apology, we are usually surprised that the penalty is as light as it is. Of course, sometimes the apology is not accepted and no way to atone is offered. So be it, we can’t control this. But if we are apologizing to ourselves, we can. There is always a way to make amends if we put our heart into it.

Give this a try the next time you’re reluctant to let yourself off the hook. You might surprise yourself when how benevolent you can be when invited.

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide.   If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.
Lynda Martens
Lynda Martens
Marriage & Family Therapist, MSc, RP, RMFT

Hi Ohio, I totally get how it can be more difficult to forgive ourselves than to forgive others. My guess is that you tend to come down too hard on yourself a lot. That's a huge barrier to happiness that you can work to reduce. I'll get you started.

You feel shame in a debilitating way that is probably way out of proportion to the incident. Is it triggering some old shame? Unfortunately, a lot of adults use shame as a motivator for kids. It doesn't work. When was the first time you remember feeling a lot of shame, as in "I'm bad", or "I'm worthless"? Is there a younger version of you who is still feeling shame over something that wasn't your fault? Sometimes shame shadows are connected to an absent or hurtful parent, sexual abuse or some family loss or trauma. 

If so, picture yourself at that age. Can you tell your child self that whatever horrible thing happened to them isn't their fault? Can you have compassion for that child who first felt shame or had shame heaped on them? That's your first goal...to go to the source of the shame and heal that child's wound with compassion. What happens to children is never their fault (and fault is a pretty useless concept anyway).

Once you take the layers of old "I'm bad" shame off, the load is lighter and you can use self talk to further reduce the shame. Here are some things you can say to yourself...every day...

  • I'm human and that's okay. I don't have to be perfect.
  • I can have compassion for my mistakes.
  • I can feel proud that I'm facing my mistake and making things right.
  • I deserve forgiveness and compassion, and I have that for other people too.
  • There's no purpose to holding on to shame.
  • I can learn from my mistakes and move forward.
  • Everyone makes mistakes.
  • Other people don't want me to carry this shame around.
  • I don't need shame to remind me not to do it again. I've figured that out.
Shame tries to convince you that you need to carry "it" around in order to prevent further mistakes. Poppycock.  You've learned your lesson, now you can move forward to other mistakes. Sorry...but you're human and you'll keeping making... hopefully different, glorious mistakes. Embrace the learning. Lean into the experiences of life. It's all juicy stuff, and you're in good company; we're all in the same position of being mortal.

The information above is intended as general information...  (more)The information above is intended as general information based on minimal information, and does not constitute health care advice. This information does not constitute communication with a counselor/therapist nor does it create a therapist-client relationship nor any of the privileges that relationship may provide. If you are currently feeling suicidal or are in crisis, call 911 or proceed to your local emergency room.

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