Learn to Forgive Yourself by Asking These 4 Questions

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The yearning for personal redemption could be considered the bedrock of many religions. Humans inherently make mistakes, which can cause us to feel emotions including shame, guilt, anxiety and unhappiness. To be redeemed of our mistakes equals freedom from that guilt and fear—a fresh start and the possibility of joy. 

In the secular world of modern psychology, the parallel path of forgiving yourself is equally important when it comes to emotional well-being. Swap “mind” for “soul,” and the narrative plays out largely the same. You do something—break a promise to a friend, perhaps—that you feel badly about. The incident eats at you. Your self-condemnation might even make you question your worth as a “good” person. 

The religious model for redemption seeks divine forgiveness. But when seeking personal redemption via self-forgiveness, there are other paths you can take. Marilyn Cornish, Ph.D., an associate professor of counseling psychology at Auburn University College of Education, developed a four-part therapeutic model to learn to forgive yourself: “responsibility, remorse, restoration and renewal.” Consider the following questions to achieve your own personal redemption.

Why did you do the thing you need to forgive yourself for?

Forgiving yourself can become self-delusion if you don’t accept the blame for what you’ve done. Don’t make excuses, rationalize your behavior or blame other people. Look inside yourself to understand the root causes of your actions.

Are you a people pleaser who takes on too much and then disappoints the same people you wanted to please? Does your own insecurity cause you to diminish the success of others? Once you accept responsibility, you can begin to make amends, forgive yourself and prevent yourself from repeating the same offenses.

Are you thinking of yourself more than the person you hurt?

Try to direct your feelings of shame and guilt toward empathy rather than self-criticism. Everyone makes mistakes, and beating yourself up doesn’t help anyone. Think instead of the feelings of the other person: Are they as offended as you imagined? Why might they be particularly hurt? Have they made it clear they are upset with you?

It might be the case that your embarrassment and remorse are outsized for the situation. If not, you can begin to make amends.

How can you right your wrongs to forgive yourself?

Here’s the hard part: Now that you understand your motivation and have considered the feelings of your friend, relative, colleague, etc., you need to do what you can to repair the damage. Apologize without excuses. Commit to doing better.

What if the other person doesn’t forgive you?

They might not. It’s no one else’s job to absolve you, and forgiving yourself can’t rely on an outside pardon. If you have done the work of understanding your wrong and doing all you can to rectify it, it’s time to move on.

You might always feel guilty, but lingering self-punishment and rumination will only take energy away from bettering yourself. Cornish recommends writing yourself a letter of forgiveness that outlines what you’ve learned and the positive changes you’ve made as a result. In that way, forgiving yourself is an act of compassion toward yourself—and others. 

This article appeared in the March 2018 issue of SUCCESS magazine and was updated April 2023. Photo by DimaBerlin/Shutterstock

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