If you’re kicking yourself for forgetting a friend’s birthday, or maybe you feel a deep pang of regret about the way you treated someone a long time ago – you’re not alone. We are all used to harbouring feelings of self-condemnation or self-blame. And this is particularly true if you tend to overthink things, dissecting your social interactions, decisions and reactions in detail.
“Our inbuilt survival instinct, as humans, wants us to do well and have others see us doing well, so our tendency to give ourselves a hard time when we get things wrong is natural,” explains positive psychologist Cheryl Rickman, author of The Little Book of Resilience and The Happiness Bible. “We are, by default, kinder to others than we are to ourselves and tend to be our own harshest critic,” she adds. “It’s evolutionary for us to be this way – back when being accepted in a tribe was a matter of survival, we needed to perform well, as our life would count on it.”
And although today survival, in this sense, is not usually our primary concern, that fear of making mistakes – and repeating past mistakes – remains. Being liked and accepted by others is still a major driving force for our actions, and many of us worry that certain transgressions will impact our place among friends and family.
For transformational life coach Nicky Clinch, what often prevents self-forgiveness is a lack of self-worth. “One of the most common causes of struggle in the human condition is the belief that we are not enough,” she says. “To forgive ourselves we have to be loving, patient and compassionate with ourselves, and therefore believe we are worthy of receiving these things.”
Unsurprisingly, holding on to feelings of guilt and blame can be extremely damaging for our wellbeing – both mentally and physically. A 2013 study by the University of Liverpool found that ruminating too much on negative events is the biggest predictor of depression and anxiety.
“Dwelling on things can leave us stewing with resentment, blame and anger and this can cause real struggle and suffering,” Nicky explains. “The mind will find it impossible to feel at peace, and if we hold on to these emotions for too long it can lead to many destructive habits, behaviours and health issues. We might eat junk food or drink alcohol to try to suppress the stress. Or we might push ourselves hard by overworking and keeping busy in order to avoid feeling pain. Any of these reactions can lead the body to become tight and tense, which will immediately affect our digestion, our muscles and our ability to breathe easily. It is also likely to affect our sleep as we are unable to rest and relax.”
On the flipside, scientific research has proven that self-forgiveness is good for us. A recent study by the University of California discovered that it may be useful in preventing cognitive decline, while research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences suggests that it can help reduce and stop procrastination.
How to forgive yourself
In addition, experts at the University of Milan have found that forgiving yourself for your mistakes can benefit the relationships in your life and lead to a higher level of satisfaction in couples. So how can we show ourselves more kindness?
Firstly, we need to recognise that making mistakes is part of what we do, and that it is through missteps that we grow and develop. “Being perfect is not being human. Being flawed is,” says Cheryl. “When we live our lives through a lens of acceptance, tolerance and compassion – both for ourselves and for other humans – we become stronger and better equipped to cope with, and cherish, life in all its occasionally brutal glory. We’re the sum total of all the experiences that we enjoy and endure throughout our lives: the ups and the downs, the accomplishments and the mistakes. If we removed any of those successes or failures from our journey, we wouldn’t be us. This realisation can be powerful in warranting forgiveness.”
Instead of overthinking the things that have gone wrong as a result of a mistake, we can help ourselves by taking time to consider what we have learnt from our actions and see it as an opportunity to discover more about ourselves. This kind of self-reflection is useful for all sorts of reasons, and in many research studies a certain degree of self-reflection has been associated with lower levels of depression.
In self-reflection, Cheryl encourages us not to be scared to confront our feelings. “Label your emotions about the situation,” Cheryl advises. “Studies have revealed that simply labelling an emotion in a couple of words reduces the feelings associated with it and decreases the emotional impact. It’s a tool used by FBI hostage-negotiators to calm situations down. Resilience isn’t about ignoring sadness or pushing stress away, it’s about learning to navigate our negative emotions and find a way through them. Labelling them, and acknowledging them, is the first step in doing this.”
The key is not to be afraid of making a mistake again. “Resilience is about what we do next, described by psychologists as our ability to ‘struggle well’. To do that, rather than dwell, we should accept what we can’t change and change what we can,” Cheryl says.
“Understanding what is, and what isn’t, within your control helps build a resilient mindset. For example, you can control your goals, your effort, your behaviour, who you spend time with, how much you take care of yourself and what you think and do, but you can’t control what others say, think or do, past mistakes or circumstances and situations that happen to you. So if a situation is within your control, list actions you can take to improve it. If it isn’t, choose to devote your mind space to something that is and move forward.”
Learn how to forgive yourself with this simple ritual
Nicky shares her step-by-step guide to self-forgiveness…
Be really honest with yourself about what caused the incident that needs to be forgiven. Awareness is the first step to change. Very often we don’t see the whole picture as it truly is, we only see the mistake and that is all we focus on. But there is a bigger picture. Use a journal to write down as much as you can about the incident to get a clear understanding of your emotional and physical state at the time.
Identify what you could have changed
Now have a think about what you could have done prior to the mistake to take better care of yourself and your emotional state. Is there something that may have helped prevent the mistake from happening – such as asking for more support, or going for a quiet walk? Remember that we all have needs that have to be taken care of and, when ignored, they can negatively impact how we behave.
Recognise that you have more knowledge
The next step is to understand that you were doing the best you could with the information you had. At the time of the mistake you may not have been truly aware of what you were struggling with, feeling and needing. But now you do. By becoming aware of the other options and choices that you have, you will be more able to move forward with positivity and knowledge.
See what you have learnt
With this in mind, write down everything you have learnt and gained from the incident. Take note of the positives that have arisen from it.
Let yourself forgive
Now, stand in front of a mirror with your hand on your heart and repeat these words: ‘You did the best you could with the information you had at the time. Well done for using this experience to teach you more. I’m sorry it has caused you pain. I forgive you for making the mistake and I’m proud of you for turning it around into a useful, positive experience.’ Close your eyes and breathe deeply as you let these words sink in. Open yourself up to your feelings and accept them.
Looking for more articles about self-compassion? Find out how to challenge negative thoughts, why hypnotherapy can help you to think more positively and why being kind to yourself and others can improve your wellbeing.
About our experts
Cheryl is a positive psychology practitioner and the author of a number of books including The Little Book of Resilience and The Happiness Bible. For more information, visit cherylrickman.co.uk.
Nicky is a transformational coach, spiritual mentor and founder of the Warrior Woman community. Her aim is to empower women to become their most authentic and aligned selves. Connect with Nicky at nickyclinch.com
This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 32. Featured image by Unsplash/Marionel Luciano.