We’ve all been there. You forgot to send a wedding present, spilled a secret that wasn’t yours to share, or perhaps even did something to intentionally hurt someone else. And now you feel like a total jerk. You’ve got a lump in your stomach and you can’t stop replaying the situation in your head. Deep down, you know you’re better than this, but right now, it feels like you’re the worst person in the world. And you have no idea when-or even if-you’ll ever be able to forgive yourself.
However, stewing in remorse isn’t a productive way to cope. As difficult as it may seem, letting go of guilt and shame is a necessary part of moving on from any mistake or embarrassment. Even if we can’t change how someone else reacts to a situation, we can always change our own outlook. Here’s to finally forgive yourself-or at least try.
Remember that it’s okay to feel guilty.
“Every emotion we have serves a purpose,” says Jenny Scott, LCSW. “Happiness tells us something is going right and encourages us to connect with others. Sadness informs us that we’ve lost something. It’s the same with guilt.”
Mistakes help us evolve into better people.
When we learn to experience guilty feelings as a way of receiving information, we are already healing from our mistake. “The emotion of guilt lets us know that our actions or behaviors conflict with our values and beliefs,” says Scott. “It also helps us repair the damage that might remain thanks to our wrongdoing or accident.”
But, understand the difference between guilt and shame.
“Guilt serves a purpose. Shame does not,” says Scott. With guilt, you tend to understand exactly what you did wrong, why you made the mistake, and how you can repair the situation. There’s nothing left to do. Shame is a bit trickier. With shame, you can feel like you’re underneath a pile-on, with no way to climb out, which is not a helpful way to heal, she says.
Admit you messed up.
Everyone struggles with admitting they’ve done something bad, but denial is how people get themselves into even deeper trouble. There are only so many times you can blame tardiness on the train, or forget your mother-in-law’s birthday because you’ve “been so busy.”
Own your mistakes.
“Often times, we use denial as a way to protect ourselves from the negative emotions of shame and guilt,” says Scott. “And while it may be more comfortable to believe that we haven’t done anything wrong, it never helps the situation. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away.” At some point (soon), you’re going to have to claim your mistakes for what they are: not your proudest moments, but part of your evolution towards becoming a better person.
Apologize to anyone you may have hurt.
Of course, your first impulse will probably be to mend relationships or trust that’s been breached. The only way to do this correctly is to step fully into your culpability, and admit fault.
“Offer a heartfelt apology and do your best to right any outstanding wrongs,” says Dr. Ellen Hendricksen, clinical psychologist and author of How To Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic And Rise Above Social Anxiety. Make sure to listen and be open to however that person responds, and don’t pressure or demand forgiveness from them right away. Or even ever.
“You can’t control when or if someone else forgives you,” says Scott. “But if you’ve done what you can to make amends then you can move on.” Give that person space if they ask for it.
Give those you’ve wronged space.
Imagine what forgiveness would feel like.
Hendricksen offers an exercise for mastering this complex emotion. “One thing we can do is visualize a scene in which we are forgiven. How does your body feel? What emotions arise? What actions would you take? A vivid imagining of how forgiveness would feel, both inside and out, can help true self-forgiveness come to fruition.”
Write yourself an apology.
Include how you offered remorse to others and how you plan to make amends. Ask yourself what you’ll do differently next time, and then, if you like, read what you’ve written out loud.
Know that this error doesn’t define you.
Be comfortable saying you disappointed yourself, but find strength in knowing this one error doesn’t define you. Most importantly, remember to be kind. “Rather than ruminating or lashing yourself with guilt, practice self-compassion, which involves soothing and coaching yourself as you would with a good friend,” says Hendricksen. Afterall, as Hendrickson points out, “you can’t heal in a punitive environment.”
Learn from your mistake.
What’s the point of feeling guilty if it doesn’t change how you’ll respond in the future? “If you think you’re ready, ask yourself the question, ‘Why did your action feel okay in the moment?'” says Dr. Scott. “All of these questions have a lesson behind them and can be a teachable moment.”
Take care of yourself, mentally and physically.
Because guilt is such a visceral feeling, it can manifest in all sorts of painful ways. “Emotionally you can feel tense, and have this drive to make things better even if you’ve already done so,” cautions Scott. “If we carry the guilt and shame too long, it can cause distance in our relationships. Carried even longer, it can begin to alter our perception of ourselves and take a significant toll on our confidence and mental health.” That’s why it’s important to apologize and forgive yourself as soon as you can, and, if you are having serious trouble moving forward, seek the help of a therapist.
Physical signs of guilt manifest themselves similarly to anxiety, says Scott. Muscle tension, headaches, GI issues, lack of focus and concentration, are all symptoms. That’s why it’s important to move your body, practice mindful breathing, and eat healthy, even if you might feel the inclination to punish yourself.
This might be the hardest part. Often when we feel embarrassed and guilty about our actions, we want everything to be back to normal (especially if we’ve hurt people). But you can’t rush your own feelings, and you certainly can’t make anyone else move faster on their emotions, either.
You can’t rush your feelings. Or anybody else’s.
“We’re social animals-we need the company of others for belonging, community, and plain old love,” says Hendricksen. “When we transgress, we acknowledge our mistake by feeling guilty. It’s a way of demonstrating empathy, regret, and understanding, and ensuring we will be accepted back into the group. But sometimes we overshoot and flog ourselves to a point that’s out of proportion with our transgression.”
Instead of ruminating in your error, try accepting that there’s nothing else you can do to resolve the issue, and press pause on your worrying. Of course, your feelings will still be there tomorrow, but at least they won’t have ruined your entire day.
Don’t try to change other people.
Even if you’ve apologized to the people you’ve hurt, and begun the process of forgiving yourself, it’s still likely that you’ll feel embarrassed by our actions-if only because you’re still concerned with how other people feel about you. But other people’s opinions can only hold so much weight, and their opinions are rarely part of the solution.
Practice what you preach.
“Social media puts out this idea that we expect perfection and anything less deserves to be shamed,” says Scott. “This, when seen on a daily basis, only reinforces the idea that we better not make a mistake or else this may be us.” But the truth is, everyone makes mistakes-whether they’re accidents or bad judgement calls. Learning to process feelings of guilt and avoid those of shame will prevent us from reacting in a way we might regret, or worse, continuing to feel bad for something we can’t change.
Pro tip: Practice doing this for others before you have any reason to do it for yourself. Don’t shame people who’ve wronged you, and, if warranted, truly grant them forgiveness when they ask for it.