Yes, you can learn how to forgive yourself for your past mistakes. Your failures are behind you; you don’t have to carry them anymore. You learned from your mistakes, and you’re stronger, kinder, and wiser now.
To make peace with yourself and be happy, you need to learn how to forgive yourself. These steps towards forgiving yourself are inspired by a counseling session I recently observed when I was getting my Master of Social Work (MSW) at the University of British Columbia. I sat in on a therapy session with a counselor and a man recovering from heroin addiction. He said he has no problem forgiving people who hurt him, but he can’t forgive himself for the bad things he’s done. He hates himself. “Why is it so hard,” he asked, “to forgive myself for my past?”
In the therapy session I observed, the counselor didn’t explain why it’s so hard for us to forgive ourselves. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile, and I wonder if the struggle to forgive ourselves has to do with shame and guilt.
When we do something wrong, we should feel guilty. “I did a bad thing.” That’s appropriate guilt, and it motivates us to make amends and ask for forgiveness. Hopefully, we can forgive ourselves for making mistakes and doing the wrong thing.
But, if we feel ashamed of ourselves (“I am a bad person” instead of “I did a bad thing”), then we might have a more difficult time forgiving ourselves for our past mistakes and failures. If you read How to Forgive Yourself for Not Protecting Your Dog, you’ll see both shame and guilt in action.
Before you read my tips on how to forgive yourself for your past mistakes and failures, consider the difference between guilt and shame. Do you hate yourself for what you did? That’s shame. Do you feel that you made a mistake, used bad judgment, or made the wrong choice? That’s guilt. Learning how to separate the two concepts will help with self-forgiveness.
7 Tips on How to Forgive Yourself for Your Past
In Conflict: From Theory to Action Roxane Lulofs and Dudley Cahn describe nine elements of forgiving someone for what they did to you. Here are those ideas, rewritten into practical tips for forgiving yourself for your past mistakes or failures.
You’ll find 10 practical reasons for self-forgiveness after these tips on how to forgive yourself. If you’re not ready to learn how to forgive, you might be ready to learn why self-forgiveness is so important.
1. Accept that self-forgiveness is a process that takes time
You don’t forgive yourself once and poof! You’re suddenly free from guilt, conviction, condemnation. Why? Because you’re not God. He seems to be the only one who can just forgive and forget. Truly, He has a really bad memory for our past mistakes, failures, and regrets. He forgives Believers and forgets our failures quickly and easily – our mistakes are as far as the east is from the west.
But self-forgiveness isn’t that easy for us mere mortals. It’s a shame, because if God can forgive us…who are we to hold on to our past mistakes and failures? Learning how to forgive yourself for your past is a process that takes time to perfect. Unfortunately, the worse you feel about what you did, the longer it’ll take to forgive yourself. But it gets easier! Healing and learning how to love yourself is always a process – and so is grieving the choice you made or the harm you caused.
You can trust the process of self-forgiveness if you actively learn how to forgive yourself and let go of your past.
2. Learn how others forgave themselves
O, the guilt I carried around for the bad things I did! It’s embarrassing and shameful to think about my wrong choices, illegal behavior, and immoral acts. I tormented myself by recalling what I did wrong. I relived my mistakes, revisited my regrets, and reviewed my failures over and over. I burdened myself needlessly. What a waste of time and energy. What a waste of joy and peace. Instead of being productive and fruitful, I wallowed in my own muck and mire. Foolish!
How did I learn how to forgive myself for my past?
I learned how to see myself the way God sees me. It was a life-changing moment: I was in a Bible Study, and we were to write down how God sees us. I closed my eyes, took a few minutes to picture myself in God’s eyes, and Hello! There she is, a vulnerable, innocent, bouncy, fresh, curly-haired, joyful little girl. I saw how the world hurt her, and I saw why she was so insecure and afraid. I understood why she made bad choices. I accepted God’s loving, compassionate, and kind view of me, and I was able to forgive myself.
3. Learn about self-forgiveness from wise teachers
Tim Keller, author of Counterfeit Gods, has preached several sermons on self-forgiveness. He says it’s actually a sin not to forgive yourself for your past because you’re making yourself mightier and more important than God. If He forgives you, how can you hold on to your mistakes and regrets? You’re putting your ego and self-image above God’s view of you. You’re making yourself God when you don’t forgive yourself.
“Refuse to remember something God has chosen to forget,” says Joyce Meyer. “Whatever your sin or failure, you need to confess it to God and then let it go. Stop punishing yourself for something that is in the past.”
Read books on how to forgive yourself. If you’re not a Believer, find non-Christian books on forgiveness. Don’t assume that one blog post on forgiveness – or even hours of reading online articles about how to forgive yourself – will teach you what you need to know. You need to really learn how to forgive by reading about the gift of self-forgiveness.
4. Practice different ways of thinking – let the guilt whoosh on by
This is one of my most practical tips on how to forgive yourself for your past: simply replace your self-condemnation with a healthier, more life-giving thought.
When a guilty thought drops into my brain, I let it whoosh on by. I don’t engage it, I don’t fight with it, I don’t argue with it…I simply replace it with a healthy joyful thought that makes me feel loved, secure, and free. This is surprisingly effective! I’m also becoming more aware of when to expect those condemning thoughts, and I’m ready for them. For me, it’s while I’m making coffee at 4:15 am every morning. That’s the time I tend to feel most guilty for my past mistakes and failures, and that’s when I practice my own tips on how to forgive myself.
5. Choose your healthy life-giving thoughts that bring freedom and healing
It took me a long time to come up with the exact right thought for me. I practiced different Scriptural verses, but none really stuck. I saved different words of wisdom from teachers like Joyce Meyers, Nicky Gumbel, Tim Keller.
“The Spirit of the Lord brings radical freedom to our lives,” said Nicky Gumbel, founder of Alpha. “Freedom from legalism, guilt, condemnation, self-hatred and self-rejection. Freedom from the power of sin, selfishness, manipulation and control. Freedom from the fear of death and fear of what others think of us. Freedom from comparing ourselves with others. You are free to know, love and serve God. You are free to use your life and energy to love others. You are free to be yourself. You can approach God with boldness (2 Corinthians 3:12). You do not need to veil your face.”
That was too long for me to recite when I found myself struggling with guilty thoughts, so I say this to myself: “Come to me when you are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus said this in Matthew, and it comforts and heals me. It speaks to my regrets and failures, and it helps me forget my past mistakes.
6. Grieve your wounds; grieve the pain you caused others
What did you do wrong? How did you hurt other people; how did you hurt yourself? Meet your pain. Grieve your past. It’s scary and painful to grieve, but it is important and healthy. Write about the choices you made, and how your actions affected people.
Allow yourself to be angry about how you’ve been hurt. “Hurt people hurt others,” says Joyce Meyer. The reason you’re here, learning how to forgive yourself for your past, is because you were hurt. You hurt others out of your own pain and wounded-ness. To heal – to forgive yourself – involves grieving what you experienced. Grieve the choices you made. If you’ve been beating yourself up for years, decide that it is time for you to move on. Refuse to allow yourself to wallow in victimhood. Choose to give yourself the gift of learning how to forgive yourself.
If you’re dealing with shame, read How to Stop Hating Yourself.
7. Find a forgiving, accepting, humble person to talk to
Have you shared your mistakes and regrets with someone you trust? What you keep inside you will destroy you; what you “confess” will heal you. I’m not Catholic and I’m not suggesting you confess your sins to a priest, but I know that keeping secrets impedes healing and growth. Shedding light on your past by talking about it will help you heal. Walking in dark will make you stumble and fall; walking in light and connecting with others will help you go farther and faster than you thought possible.
How have you grown because of your past? What would you do differently next time? Use your experience to make better, healthier choices in the future. Don’t waste it your failures. Plant them.
Books on How to Forgive Yourself for Your Past
How To Forgive Ourselves Totally: Begin Again by Breaking Free from Past Mistakes by R.T. Kendall will take you deeper into the process of self-forgiveness.
“Detached forgiveness is when there is a reduction in negative feelings toward the offender, but no reconciliation takes place,” writes Kendall. “Limited forgiveness is when there is a reduction in negative feelings toward the offender and the relationship is partially restored, but there is a decrease in the emotional intensity of the relationship. Full forgiveness occurs when there is a total cessation of negative feelings toward the offender, and the relationship is fully restored.”
In Forgiveness: How to Make Peace With Your Past and Get on With Your Life, Sidney B. Simon and Suzanne Simon offer practical exercises and tips for healing. You’ll learn the art and practice of self-forgiveness and self-acceptance, and give yourself the freedom you need to heal.
“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Lewis B. Smedes.
If you haven’t written about your past mistakes and failures, share them below. Don’t use your real name. Be honest about what you did wrong and how you’ve changed. Tell us what you learned and where you’re headed. I can’t offer advice or forgiveness, but you may find yourself one step closer to learning how to forgive yourself.
Forgiving Yourself After a Difficult Decision
Here’s a part of an email I wrote to a woman who can’t forgive herself for rehoming her dog:
I’m sorry you’re going through this — it’s such a terrible feeling, wondering if you did the right thing. And the guilt and pain never seems to go away (though it does get lighter and easier to live with!). Getting counseling is a good idea, because it’ll help you deal with the guilt. A good counselor will help you learn how to forgive yourself, and how to let go of your own self-judgments and self-criticisms.
Try not to people bother you – they who judge, condemn, and criticize you for the choices you made. They’re too narrow-minded to see that we’re all on different journeys in life, we have different reasons for making the choices we do, and we’re all doing the best we can. Maybe we made the wrong decision to give our pet away – I often wonder if I did! – but we made the best decision we could at the time.
If you feel guilty for the “bad” things you did, you need to learn how to accept, love, and forgive yourself. I’m working on that – I want to be more compassionate towards myself, so I can be more compassionate and loving towards others. You did the right thing — you made the best decision you could’ve made at that point and time in your life.
We have to remember that we made decisions based on what we were going through at the time, and know that we did the best we could.
10 Reasons to Forgive Yourself for Your Past Mistakes or Failures
“If you reject or push away some aspect of yourself, it only gets bigger,” writes Judd in Love Has Wings. “You have to embrace it – it is a part of you and you cannot deny it forever. Don’t label something as ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’; embrace it with honesty and acceptance.”
Are you tired of beating yourself up for the mistakes you made? It’s time to forgive yourself, because…
1. Changing the past is impossible. You did the best you could with the skills, knowledge, emotions, and personality you had at the time. What good comes from beating yourself up for the mistakes you made?
2. Accepting the worst parts of yourself – your insecurities, weaknesses, shameful acts, “bad” decisions – will help you love yourself. The result? You’ll be at peace with who you are and what you’ve done.
3. Forgiving yourself makes you strong, confident, safe, secure, and trusting. The result? This will help you make good decisions now and in the future.
4. Having compassion for yourself makes you more compassionate towards others. The result? You’re a kinder, happier, more caring person. And the world needs more of those!
5. Embracing your fears and insecurities may bring short-term pain, and long-term relief. The result? You’ll build better relationships with people – and with yourself.
6. Learning how to forgive yourself for the mistakes you made increases your self-perception and self-esteem. The result? You feel better about yourself, which inspires you to make better choices.
7. Releasing your inner critic makes you feel happier and friendlier towards both yourself and the world. The result? You will attract happy, friendly, positive, warm people into your life.
8. Surrendering to your regrets and failures, to your past decisions and choices, will help you live mindfully. The result? You learn to exist in the moment…and the moment is all you have.
9. Loving yourself frees you from addiction – whether you’re addicted to food, shopping, drugs, sex, or people pleasing. The result? You’re free from addiction!
10. Letting go of the past makes you lighter and free-er. The result? You can move forward without emotional baggage that drags you down.
Another Resource for Self-Forgiveness
I’m reading Love Has Wings: Free Yourself from Limiting Beliefs and Fall in Love with Life, and I love it. It’s about accepting yourself, your life, and the choices you made — but also making change and taking steps forward.
“True freedom is about taking responsibility for who you are, embracing who you are, and trusting in your own inner voice,” writes Judd in Love Has Wings.
I’d add that true freedom comes from forgiving yourself for your past mistakes, regrets, and failures. Before I learned how to forgive myself, that was the biggest thing holding me back in life: remorse for the things I did.
Now I know that God has a terrible memory 🙂 and I am free from guilt and condemnation. I am free!
What do you think – can you forgive yourself for your past mistakes, regrets, failures, and choices? I welcome your thoughts below. I can’t offer advice, but you may find it healing and liberating to be honest about who you are.