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.1
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
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. To forgive yourself, you should:
- Understand your emotions
- Accept responsibility for what happened
- Treat yourself with kindness and compassion
- Express remorse for your mistakes
- Make amends and apologize (including apologizing to yourself)
- Look for ways to learn from the experience
- Focus on making better choices in the future
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.2 One therapeutic approach to self-forgiveness suggests that four key actions can be helpful.3
The 4 R's of Self-Forgiveness
Understand Your Emotions
Becoming aware of the emotions you are experiencing is an important part of learning to forgive yourself. Research has found that identifying and labeling your emotion can help reduce the intensity of your feelings.4 This can help you better regulate emotions, including those linked to feelings of guilt and shame.
Accept Responsibility for Your Actions
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.5
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.
Treat Yourself With Kindness and Compassion
Forgiving yourself requires confronting your actions and showing remorse for what happened, but it is important to approach this with self-compassion. The key is to treat yourself with the same kindness that you would show to another person. Try to avoid being self-critical and instead be compassionate while still acknowledging that you made a mistake and want to do better in the future.
Express Remorse for Your Mistakes
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.6
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.7 Understand that making mistakes that you feel guilty about does not make you a bad person or undermine your intrinsic value.
Make Amends and Apologize
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.8 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.
Learn From the Experience
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.9 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.
Try to Do Better
Forgiving yourself also means making an active effort to do better in the future. As you approach similar situations, reflect on how you felt about your past mistakes. Rather than feeling guilty about those past errors, remind yourself about what you learned and how you can use that knowledge and experience to guide your actions going forward.
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.10 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).11
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.
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.1 Similarly, self-compassion is associated with higher levels of success, productivity, focus, and concentration.
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.12
Having a compassionate and forgiving attitude toward yourself is also a critical component of successful relationships.1 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.13
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.14
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.2
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.2
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.15 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.5 In addition to reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, self-forgiveness can also have positive effects on your physical health and relationships.
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
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
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
Torre JB, Lieberman MD. Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling as implicit emotion regulation. Emotion Review. 2018;10(2):116-124. doi:10.1177/1754073917742706
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
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
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
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
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
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
Roese NJ, Vohs KD. Hindsight bias. Perspect Psychol Sci. 2012;7(5):411-26. doi:10.1177/1745691612454303
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
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
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
Breines J. The healthy way to forgive yourself. Greater Good Magazine. August 23, 2012.