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Steps for Self-Forgiveness

How justice, clemency and mercy play important parts in letting go.

Key points

  • The act of forgiving involves three virtues: justice, clemency, and mercy.
  • Even in the most difficult-to-imagine scenarios, people find ways to forgive.
  • One can rise above the act while also accepting responsibility and accountability.
  • Forgiving yourself could very well be the kindest gesture you ever do for the world.

What if I told you that you were worthy of your mistakes? Even the ones that you are most ashamed of.

Forgiveness is like walking on hallowed ground. The act of forgiving involves three virtues: justice, clemency, and mercy. Even in the most gripping and difficult-to-imagine scenarios, people find ways to forgive.

Forgiveness is hard. Self-forgiveness is even harder. This is because when we forgive others for their wrongdoings, we transcend the hurt and pain by "taking the moral high ground." The ‘forgiven’ bask in the ‘virtues’ of the ‘forgiver’. This is why self-forgiveness is so complex. We need to occupy both lanes. We need to rise above the 'act' while also accepting responsibility and accountability, even when we don’t feel worthy or feel like we deserve to. Without holding self-forgiveness is a form of punishment. However, it may not work the way we think it does. The reality is that guilt is a terrible teacher and motivator. It rarely changes our behaviours or feelings. Here is a different approach. Chances are if you’re reading this article, the current practice of punishing yourself isn’t working anyway!

Self-Forgiveness Can Begin With These Four Practices

1. Recognize and name the value that is out of alignment: We feel guilt because we have done something outside of our values. If you value your health and wellness and you have missed physical activities and eating nutritious food all week, you may feel guilty. Call it what it is. ‘I am a healthy person, and my behaviour is out of alignment.’ Or perhaps you have not been a ‘present’ parent. You have been working late and use screens to keep your child occupied. This was fine at first but now it has been two years! ‘I am feeling guilt because this way of parenting is out of alignment with the kind of parent I am’.

2. Be explicit about the behaviour and the consequences: This is a challenge since there are such conflicting definitions of wrongdoing yet knowing how this behaviour and the consequences relate is critical. Say you lied to your friend, and this hurt their feelings.

The lying is the behaviour, and the consequence is breaking trust. If you are interested in relationship repair with that friend, you need to be explicit about what you did and hold space for the consequences. Once you have taken action, then we release it. Revisiting shame, guilt, embarrassment is like an echo chamber – you can keep going over the situation in your head a million times, but that will not change the outcome.

3. Embrace the discomfort: When we have dropped the ball, hurt someone we love, or disappointed someone, the discomfort is brutal. Ask yourself if this is an ego issue? Our ego is a fickle friend. When things are good, our ego seems like a constant companion, yet when we make mistakes, it is the first to point out our faults. The remedy to tame the ego is to recognize it and hold that feeling. Keep a strong focus on the ego and its judgement. You are stronger than your ego. Hold your ground. As I shared in my book, Calm Within The Storm: A Pathway to Everyday Resiliency, ‘My ego hasn’t served me all that well in life, anyway. It was always my bruised, battered, and weary heart and mind that showed up every time I needed to keep going, despite all the hurt, pain, and fear.’

4. Mistakes are events, not characteristics: When we are in the darkness of guilt, there is a tendency to think we are the mistake. My invitation here is to reframe this narrative. You are a person who made a mistake, you are NOT the mistake. We interweave our morality into our behaviours, yet this is not helpful. All behaviour serves a purpose. Some behaviours are adaptive, and others are maladaptive. The truth is that most people are doing the absolute best they can with the tools and resources they have at the time.

Working Towards for Self-Forgiveness

See it: Notice what you are feeling. ‘I notice I feel guilty about this.'

Name it: Call it what it is. ‘This is guilt.’

Place it: Where is it coming from? ‘I am feeling guilty because I behaved outside of my values. This is not who I am. This is not me at my best.’

Release it: Action It Out. ‘I forgive myself for making this choice. I will call my friend today and express an apology. I will sit with the discomfort. I will learn from this.’

Recognizing that although you are not okay with what you did at the moment and accepting there will always be consequences to our actions, requires self-awareness and self-compassion. Continuing to feel guilty as a form of punishment will not change your behaviour. Every person has the right to their mistakes once they accept the consequences. The season for feeling guilty has gone on long enough.

  • Can you accept that you did the best you could at the time?
  • Can you boldly state that you have learned something from the experience?
  • Do you see that carrying this guilt does not serve you?
  • Could this be the moment you finally forgive yourself? If not now, when?
  • When will you let this go? Pick that date. Carrying guilt in perpetuity will not serve the greater good for anyone.

Final Thoughts

Dr. Robyne HD Inc., used with permission.
Woman reflecting
Source: Dr. Robyne HD Inc., used with permission.

The practice of self-forgiveness will not be linear or a single event. Yet, the more we commit to self-forgiveness, the lighter the load will be to carry. And just because you carry it well, that doesn’t mean it’s not heavy. It is keeping you from carrying things that truly matter. Once you set this guilt down, you will be free to carry things that matter more for the future.

The past is in the past. It is unmovable and unchangeable. What you do next speaks louder of your character than what you did yesterday. Forgiving yourself could very well be the kindest gesture you ever do for this world.

More from Robyne Hanley-Dafoe Ed.D.
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