Learning to forgive yourself

Self-forgiveness starts with you. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Self-forgiveness starts with you. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The smorgasbord of memories that your brain tosses at you when you wake in the middle of the night never ceases to amazes me, writes life coach Jan Aitken. 

As you lie there, ruminating on the random selection offered up for the night, the darkness seems to make the memories more vivid. I’ve noticed it’s not usually the fun stuff my brain serves up, but rather the painful, tough stuff: "Oh why did I do/say that?", "How could I?", "What was I thinking?".

It’s the stuff we feel guilt or shame over, the stuff we’ve not forgiven ourselves for.

I’ve written about forgiveness a number of times, but I’ve never really touched on self-forgiveness. Perhaps it’s time to take a deeper look.

OK, so what is self-forgiveness?

We have the tendency to focus on getting others to forgive us when we mess up.

The reality is that we may never be fully forgiven by others, we have no real control over that. Who, and what, other people choose to forgive is their process, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find inner peace by forgiving ourselves. Even if everyone forgives us, we won’t feel true peace and contentment until we forgive ourselves. Self-forgiveness begins and ends internally, that’s our process.

It’s through self-forgiveness and self-compassion that we can acknowledge our own shortcomings and move forward.

How do we get there?

Start with small steps so you don’t become overwhelmed. Pick one thing to kick the process off.


When you accept responsibility for your actions and their consequences, you can begin the process of forgiving yourself.


Think back on the event. Try to re-experience what you felt when you made the mistake for which you now feel guilty. This is not a time for excuses or justifications. You’re not excusing your actions. Instead, think about what need you were trying to meet at the time, only then can you find more constructive ways to fill the same needs.


After mindfully considering the event and its repercussions, think about what have you discovered about yourself.


Atoning means turning your regret and guilt into action to try to repair the damage that your actions have inflicted. If you can’t do something for the person(s) you hurt, help someone else in need, pay it forward. Atonement isn’t about punishing yourself, it’s about making reparations. Self-punishment doesn’t help anyone, yourself included!


Take what you have learned and apply it to your future actions. Stay alert to your thoughts, emotions, and experiences — it’s easy to fall back into the old way of doing things, especially if you are tired or stressed.


You may have to do this every day. It doesn’t mean you won’t have any more feelings about what’s gone before or that you’ll necessarily forget it, but you won’t find it eating away at you. Remember, we are all human and we mess up.

If you don’t forgive yourself, the mistake you made will continue to reverberate in your life.

We all make mistakes. Don’t let yours define you. Change your actions and forgive yourself.

Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

For more go to www.fitforlifecoaches.co.nz.


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