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Stop beating yourself up! Learn how to forgive yourself to move forward

March 3, 2022 - 15 min read


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Why is forgiving yourself so hard?

How self-compassion supports self-forgiveness

5 benefits of self-forgiveness

How to forgive yourself

When someone hurts us, the process for forgiving them can be fairly straightforward. We learn this in school or church as children. You might talk about what happened and they share their experience. Or, you don't talk to them, but you gain some perspective and forgive them for the pain they caused you.

Whether you come to common ground or not, you feel freed to move on.

You likely weren't taught how to forgive yourself. As a result, you struggle to move on when you've let yourself down.

Forgiving others can feel much easier than forgiving ourselves. When we experience guilt, we often get trapped in a spiral of our own feelings. Instead of having that conversation with another person, we start listening to our inner critics — and they’re not so forgiving.

Learn how guilt and shame get in our way, why beating yourself can be addictive, and how to forgive yourself in this article.

Why is forgiving yourself so hard?

When someone else does something that hurts us, our reasons for holding a grudge are usually clear. We want the hurt to be acknowledged. Once they’ve apologized and made amends, we’re usually clear to move on.

But when it comes to forgiving ourselves, things get much more difficult. When someone else hurts us, our anger can be self-protective. In a way, holding a grudge against them and demanding restitution keeps our self-image intact. We’ve successfully defended a boundary.

When we’re upset with ourselves, though, it’s because we’ve violated our values in some way. Because of that, our feelings are usually more complicated than just anger. We’re mad at ourselves, yes — but we’re also disappointed and ashamed.


These feelings can be incredibly difficult to sit with. Most of the time, when we feel uncomfortable or painful, we try to push the feelings out of consciousness. This can become a habit that actually damages our self-awareness. It’s really hard to be selectively self-aware, and avoiding the things that embarrass us feels like a small price to pay for keeping our identities intact.

Sometimes, in order to avoid taking action or apologizing for our mistakes, we use our negative feelings as a shield. We think if we make ourselves feel bad enough, we can make up for whatever we did. Experiencing guilt can be very healthy and productive if we use it to gain insight into our behavior and values. When feelings of guilt turn into shame, however, it can stop us in our tracks.

We also tend to think that beating ourselves up shows how seriously we take our past mistakes. We tend to think that “letting ourselves off the hook” means that we haven’t learned anything or that we take a careless approach towards our lives. Self-loathing is not a prerequisite for success. This kind of self-flagellation does nothing but fuel our inner critic.


What is an inner critic?

Our inner critic is the small voice inside that constantly tells that we’re failing, we’re doing something wrong, or that we should be better. It’s super mean, to be honest. What’s so wild about that critical voice is that it’s meaner than we would ever be to a friend or loved one. And we certainly wouldn’t tolerate someone saying those things to us (or about someone we love). 

But when these thoughts stay inside, they sound much more credible. We tend not to question the thoughts that run through our minds because we tend to be less aware of them. This unconscious inner voice can do a lot of damage. When it runs rampant, it’s a kind of internal gaslighting, second-guessing everything we say, do, or dream about. And developing self-compassion is the only real way to shut it up.

How self-compassion supports self-forgiveness

So what does self-compassion mean? Well, compassion — when directed towards others — means that we empathize with their struggles. We’re able to imagine how another person feels, look kindly at their circumstances, and give their actions the benefit of the doubt.

When we’re self-compassionate, self-forgiveness comes much more easily. That’s because we’re able to put our failures into perspective. We recognize that while we may have disappointed ourselves in some way, it’s not because we are inherently bad or incapable people.

Parents are often taught to separate their children from their behavior. Kids need to know that they are loved unconditionally, no matter what they do. Mindful parenting experts encourage parents to say “I don’t necessarily love what you did, but I love you, and we can fix it.”

This attitude of self-parenting can help us begin to develop self-compassion. Self-forgiveness is an action that we take to release the pain of an embarrassing or distressing situation. But self-compassion is a way of being. We can be compassionate with ourselves every single day, and we may find that we have less and less to forgive.

5 benefits of self-forgiveness

At its root, self-criticism is a protective mechanism. Its function is to save us from social and professional failures. Our critical voice is trying to keep us in line with our values (even though it could afford to be a little nicer about it).

Being overly critical can actually be counterproductive. Harsh criticism isn’t really motivating — it’s demoralizing. And it certainly doesn’t put us in the position to learn from our mistakes and move forward in a constructive way.

Self-forgiveness, on the other hand, has many benefits — both internally and externally. Here are 5 benefits of forgiving yourself. 

1. Improves emotional and mental health

Our negative thoughts can exacerbate stress, anxiety, and depression. When we are compassionate with ourselves, we relieve the internal pressure of these negative emotions. Stanford University researchers write that “those who practice self-forgiveness have better mental and emotional well-being, more positive attitudes and healthier relationships.”

2. Increases productivity

We all make mistakes. When we dwell on and try to minimize them (or become paralyzed by fear of failure) we don’t have the energy to learn from them and move on. Self-compassion improves our confidence, empathy, focus, and resilience.

3. Reduces cognitive dissonance

When we do something that feels “wrong,” we feel psychological discomfort (known as cognitive dissonance). This feeling is a good early warning that we’re off course and out of step with our values. Navigating this feeling as a learning experience and a way to bring you back into alignment helps to reduce the negative effects of these internal contradictions.  

4. Decreases impostor syndrome

When we let go of our need to be perfect, we can embrace a growth and learning mindset. This attitude of being an eternal student is fundamentally at odds with impostor syndrome. When you embrace that you’re not perfect, you won’t have such a hard time forgiving yourself for your mistakes. You’ll see them as opportunities to grow as you keep moving forward — and they may even become your competitive advantage.

5. Improves your physical health

In addition to your mental health, letting go of guilty feelings has physical health benefits. A meta-analysis involving more than 26,000 participants showed strong correlations between forgiveness and overall health. The biggest improvements were in cardiovascular health, with noted reductions in pain, cortisol levels, and blood pressure.


What happens if you don’t forgive yourself?

Sometimes, we get stuck in the story about what happened and it feels impossible to move on. There’s a physical and emotional toll to being stuck in that space of non-forgiveness. It damages your self-esteem, your relationships, and your willingness to take risks. Your entire view of yourself becomes limited, filtered through the lens of “what you did wrong.”

Learning to forgive is about letting go of the guilt and shame associated with the situation that’s paining you. And it can be especially difficult when you feel that you’ve hurt someone else. You won’t feel like you have the ability to forgive yourself while the other person is still hurt.

How to forgive yourself

Here are some ways to kickstart the forgiveness and healing process:

1. Understand that you’re not perfect

You’re not perfect. Say it in the mirror, write it down, get it on a coffee cup. You’re not perfect — and you’re not a bad person, either. You’re just a human being. Extend yourself the same grace that you extend to others. Are you expecting yourself to live up to standards you would never impose on anyone else?

2. Get clear on why you’re upset with yourself

Try to uncover what’s at the root of your guilty feelings. Is it perfectionism? Have you caused someone else pain? Have you done something that you’re embarrassed about? Whatever it is is probably uncomfortable to look at, but taking it head-on can be educational. 

Chances are, it’s not hard to imagine someone else doing the same thing and being completely unbothered. For example, I get very frustrated with myself when I don’t complete things on time. It’s the number one thing I beat myself up about. Yet I have friends that turn in everything late — or not at all — and could care less. And guess what? I don’t think that they’re bad people.

Try to be scientific about what happened and why it’s bothering you so much. In my case, being late makes me feel irresponsible and incompetent. I don’t like to think of myself as either of these things, and I don’t want anyone else feeling that way either.

3. Repair what you can

Once you’ve identified what your “wrongdoing” is, you’ll be able to tell if you need to make amends for it. You may owe someone an apology (or in my case, a finished project). Even if the ship has sailed and you’ll never have a chance to make it up, you can acknowledge it for yourself so you can let go of the past. You’re not a bad person, you just didn’t finish/do/get/say something. It’s not fun, but it happens. 

4. Find a way to close the door

This is the most challenging part of self-forgiveness. Now that you’ve seen what your part in it is (and isn’t) find some closure. Apologize, or not. Fix it, or not. But whatever it is, move on. 

I was once really overwhelmed (ok, many times) with trying to juggle multiple projects (while raising two small kids and finishing college). But I was raised not to “make excuses” for my mess-ups. Instead of accepting that I was struggling, I developed a tendency to hide out. I’d tell myself if I just worked harder, I’d get it done. No excuses.

At a certain point, I had to face facts and say “I either need to communicate when this will be done, or say I can’t do it and move on.” It was painful. People were mad. To be honest, it’s still painful, and people are probably still mad. I can’t do much about that but learn how to be better next time.

5. Regain perspective

Most of us aren’t ER surgeons — meaning that our dropped balls don’t have life-or-death repercussions. But when we get wrapped up in self-condemnation, it certainly feels that way. Talking to a coach (and a friend, and a therapist, and pretty much everyone who would listen to me beat myself up) really helped me to dig out of the guilt. I learned that no one was really as mad at me as I was. The good news about that was that I could always choose to cut myself some slack.

You’re the only one who can forgive yourself

In Buddhism, there’s a saying: “Suffer what there is to suffer, and enjoy what there is to enjoy.” When we get stuck on beating ourselves up, though, we suffer through it all. Learning to separate our selves from our circumstances can help us develop perspective and resilience. Once we stop suffering through our struggles, we can learn how to grow from them. 

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Published March 3, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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