By Sophia Godkin PhD
That thing you said or didn’t say at dinner a few weeks ago that you regret… it’s time to forgive yourself for it. That thing you did 3 years ago that you keep reminding yourself should’ve gone differently … it’s time to forgive yourself for it. And that time you let yourself down 10 years ago… it’s time to forgive yourself for that too.
Why is it time? Because regret, guilt, and shame are forms of self-punishment. They keep you locked in a mental prison of self-torment, reliving the past when you ought to be moving towards a bright, beautiful future. And I know that you don’t really want to keep living in that self-inflicted prison; you just forgot that there was a way out. And that way out is self-forgiveness. Here are 5 steps you can take toward self-forgiveness right now:
- Acknowledge and take responsibility for what you said or did.
Step into the truth of what happened. Acknowledge the negative emotions (guilt, regret, and perhaps shame) that this event elicits in you. When you blame outside people or events for something you said or did, it becomes difficult to move forward to a space of healing. When you take responsibility, the course of how things unfold suddenly rests in your hands. If you feel you wronged, you can now make it right. And although it is initially far more difficult to admit a fault or mistake in ourselves (hence why so many people resort to denial and/or blame), it is far more burdensome to carry denial, blame, hatred, and judgment in the long run. So find your inner strength, gather your sense of self, and take responsibility. This may mean you verbally express accountability to someone else but more likely it is a conversation you have with yourself. Once you’ve done so, move quickly on to Step 2. While it’s good to allow the past to resurface for a moment, there’s no need to dwell there.
- Invite self-love in.
Now that you’ve taken the truthful and brave step of acknowledging what happened and the negative emotions you have around it, you can step onto the express train to healing. This train has only one stop: Self-Love Street. This stop asks that you recognize that you were doing the best you could at the time. It asks you acknowledge that you are human after all. That we all make mistakes. It asks that you take a tender, loving approach with yourself and treat yourself as you would a close friend or someone you love. It invites you to set yourself free from regret, shame, and blame. It invites you to open up to love, kindness, and compassion. It invites you to move forward in your life, to rediscover inner peace, and to leave the past where it belongs – in the past. While on Self-Love Street, you may even consider writing yourself a letter in which you acknowledge what happened, tell yourself that it’s okay, that this situation doesn’t diminish the wonderful person that you are, that you forgive yourself, and that you love you anyway. The most important relationship you have in this life is that between you and you, and self-forgiveness is how you nourish it.
- Identify the underlying desire that you were trying to fulfill.
Every word we utter and every action we undertake is done to fulfill a purpose, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Oftentimes, when we act in disharmony with our morals, values, and beliefs, it is because there is some underlying need that wants to be fulfilled. Take a moment to think about what the driving force behind your words and/or actions that you now regret might have been? Were you seeking approval of others? Did you want to feel better about yourself in the moment? Were you trying to get back at someone? Were you wanting to feel more safe or comfortable in the situation? Whatever it is, know that it’s okay. We all have deep needs that we wish to be fulfilled in this life, and by identifying and getting to know them, we give them the opportunity to be fulfilled in adaptive and healthy ways rather than sneaking up on us through a word or action we might later regret.
- Identify what you really want to experience in life.
As much as earning approval from others, getting back at others, or feeling better about ourselves at the expense of others may make us feel temporarily better, in the long term it causes regret, sadness, and dissatisfaction. So pause and ask yourself “what is the experience I’m really going for in life?” “How do I really want to feel day in and day out?” Often, what we really want to feel is unconditionally loved, appreciated, and accepted. What we really want is to be understood and supported in being who we are. Once you recognize your real life desires (unconditional love, warmth, appreciation, etc), you’ll be able to spot the imposters (conditional love, approval, superiority, revenge, etc) much more easily and readily when they appear.
- Commit to being more of the person you really want to be, guided by self-love.
Now that you’ve recognized the difference between the desires that elicit words and actions that you may later regret and those that fuel the essence of who you are, it’s time to commit to being the person you really want to be – one who always does their best in the moment, one who understands that every facet of life, including themselves, is an imperfect work in progress, one who practices self-forgiveness and self-love in any given moment, and one who can therefore approach everyone around them with a kind, compassionate, forgiving heart that is open to, and receptive of, the healing power of unconditional love.
If you want to be happy, you’ve got to be free, and if you want to be free, you’ve got to practice self-forgiveness. To forgive is to love. So go on… love yourself. And see the magical transformation that ensues.