How to Forgive Yourself: 12 Steps to Let Go of the Past 

UPDATED: May 15, 2024
PUBLISHED: February 23, 2018
Woman looking in the mirror learning how to forgive herself for past mistakes and move on

Everyone makes mistakes, whether small ( like forgetting a date) or significant (like hurting someone deeply). The hardest part often isn’t making amends with others but rather learning to forgive ourselves. We tend to be our own worst critics, holding onto guilt, shame and self-condemnation for our past failings. 

But hanging onto these negative feelings doesn’t serve us. In fact, it can hold us back from personal growth, damage our self-esteem and keep us stuck in an unhealthy cycle. Understanding the importance of self-forgiveness and learning how to forgive yourself for past mistakes is the key to letting go, moving forward and finding inner peace. If you struggle with self-forgiveness, these 12 steps can help guide you through the process.

1. Acknowledge your emotions 

The first step toward self-forgiveness is to understand how you really feel about what you’re struggling to forgive yourself for. Give yourself permission to feel guilt, regret, sadness, anger or shame without judgment. Process the emotions rather than avoid them.

2. Take responsibility 

Take an objective look at the mistake or transgression and acknowledge your role in it. Own your part without over-exaggerating or minimizing it. Remember, taking responsibility allows you to reclaim a sense of agency and control.

3. Contextualize the behavior

Consider the circumstances at the time of your behavior, including your state of mind, knowledge and intentions. We all act based on our level of awareness in the moment. Having compassion for your past self can help soften self-blame.

4. Challenge your inner critic

Notice your self-talk around the event. Is it overly harsh and critical? Write down some of the things your inner voice is saying, then imagine how you’d respond to a friend in the same situation. Respond to your inner critic from a place of truth and compassion.

5. Apologize and make amends

If your actions negatively impacted someone else, a heartfelt apology and an attempt to make things right can be healing for both parties. If you’re unable to apologize directly, consider indirect amends like volunteering for a meaningful cause. Focus on how you can introduce lightness to the situation.

6. Extract lessons

Dig into the situation for insight and growth opportunities by asking yourself questions. What did the situation teach you about yourself, your needs and your values? How can you use the experience to become better rather than bitter? Reframing your failure as a learning experience puts it in a more positive, productive light.

7. Commit to doing better 

Use your insights to inform how you’ll handle similar situations differently moving forward. Make a specific commitment to new, values-aligned actions. Seeing your past missteps as a catalyst for positive change reinforces that they weren’t in vain.

8. Practice self-compassion

Whenever you find yourself sliding back into self-condemnation, practice self-directed compassion instead. Speak to yourself like a wise, nurturing parent or a good friend. Place a hand on your heart and offer yourself some comforting words. Compassion is the antidote to shame.

9. Lean on your support system

Reach out and share your struggle with a few trusted confidantes. Be discerning, but remember that you don’t have to go through this alone. Others’ empathy and perspective can be incredibly validating and healing.

10. Engage in a letting go ritual 

Symbolically release the baggage of unforgiveness through a ritual of your own making. You might write down what you’re forgiving yourself for and then safely burn the paper, or you may toss a rock into a body of water to symbolize a weight being lifted. Engage your creativity to make it meaningful.

11. Prioritize self-care

Forgiveness work can be emotionally and psychologically taxing. Be sure to balance it with ample self-care and stress management. Engage in activities that ground you in the present and nourish your body, mind and soul.

12. Enlist professional support 

If you’re having difficulty letting go or if you’re feeling guilty, think about talking to a therapist or counselor for help. They can teach you how to process your emotions and address any underlying issues. Self-forgiveness is a process, and an expert guide can make a big difference.

Why self-forgiveness matters

  • It releases shame, guilt and self-loathing: Forgiving yourself helps you let go of toxic emotions that eat away at your self-worth. Shame says “I am bad,” rather than “I did something bad.” Self-forgiveness helps you release shame and accept that your mistakes don’t define you. 
  • It improves mental health and decreases depression and anxiety: Studies show that practicing self-forgiveness leads to better mental and emotional well-being. Holding onto guilt and regret contributes to anxiety and depression. Alternatively, self-forgiveness has been linked to lower levels of anxiety and depression.
  • It enables you to extend more compassion to yourself and others: Self-forgiveness cultivates self-compassion. When you forgive yourself, you affirm that you’re worthy of kindness and understanding despite your imperfections. This self-acceptance makes it easier to extend that same compassion to others. 
  • It increases your self-confidence and self-trust: Forgiving yourself helps repair your self-esteem. You can regain confidence in your inherent worth and ability to recover from setbacks. You’ll also start to trust that you can face challenges and bounce back.
  • It frees up mental and emotional energy: The burden of unforgiveness is heavy and consumes a considerable amount of mental and emotional bandwidth. Forgiving yourself frees up that internal energy and attention for healthier, more productive thoughts and behaviors.  
  • It supports personal growth and transformation: Forgiveness is ultimately about healing and transformation, not condoning wrong actions. Self-forgiveness enables you to grow through your experiences. You can extract life lessons and use them as fuel for positive change. 
  • It allows you to move forward and reach your full potential: Self-forgiveness is the path to truly letting go of the past. It removes the invisible shackles of shame that keep you stuck. When you forgive yourself, you step forward with grace, stop letting past mistakes limit your potential and reclaim your inherent worthiness.

Final thoughts

Learning self-forgiveness is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. It’s not about letting ourselves off the hook or excusing bad behavior. Rather, it’s about taking responsibility, extracting life lessons and, ultimately, accepting our flawed humanity compassionately. Self-forgiveness is a process of releasing the past so we can step more fully into the present as wiser, more self-aware beings.

While simple, the steps shared here aren’t necessarily easy, and that’s okay. Be patient with yourself as you move through them and remember that you are so much more than your worst mistake. Learning to forgive yourself opens the door to emotional freedom, inner peace and the ability to reach your highest potential. You’ve got this!

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