How To Work Toward Forgiving Yourself For Past Transgressions

I was wrong. It's my fault. I'm sorry. Forgive me. For most of us, these are among the most difficult phrases we will ever speak. After all, no one likes to admit they've done wrong, especially when that transgression hurts someone they care about.

But, as hard as it can be to take responsibility for your failings, it can be even more difficult to learn to forgive yourself and move on. Often the last person to forgive us when we've done something wrong isn't the person we've erred against, but we are last to forgive ourselves. Self-forgiveness isn't something that comes naturally or easily. That's often because we mistake it for self-absolution, as if healing from a transgression means that somehow we're "getting away with it." It is as if, when we've done a wrong, perpetual self-punishment, guilt or remorse, and shame are the only paths to atonement.

The reality, though, is that true self-forgiveness is hard but necessary work. It isn't about letting yourself off the hook. It's about transforming the transgression from a continuous source of pain into a catalyst for growth and positive change. It's about turning a harm into a help, hurting into healing, both for yourself and for others. But it's a process. It takes time and effort. In the end, though, learning to be as kind, compassionate, and forgiving toward yourself as you would be toward a friend is a gift you give yourself — and the world.

Acknowledge what you've done

The first step in forgiving yourself is to stop avoiding, denying, or rationalizing your deeds. These are natural human impulses, a way to avoid the pain and, yes, the embarrassment that comes with admitting we've done wrong and hurt others.

Rationalization, minimization, deflection, and denial can also be an unconscious attempt to resolve what psychologists refer to as cognitive dissonance — the discrepancy between our actions and our self-concept. It can be an instinct to bridge the gap between what we profess to believe and how we actually behave. We revert to making excuses and deflecting blame because we want to restore our image — both to the outside world and to ourselves.

So what that means is that, if you want to learn to forgive yourself, you must first cultivate the maturity and the humility to accept responsibility. It requires you to acknowledge the full scope and weight of what you have done, without any evasion. This means that, even if others took part, even if you didn't act alone in your misdeed, there can be no blame-shifting. You, alone, are responsible for your choices and your actions. Others' deeds are for them to worry about and atone for.

Recognize the impact your actions had on others

As important as it is to acknowledge and take responsibility for your transgression, that's only the first stage. Next, shift your focus outward, from acknowledging your shortcomings to recognizing the impact those failings have had on others. Again, it's very likely that your instinct will be to blame-shift, rationalize, or minimize, but you shouldn't. Doing so will only inflict further pain on those you've wronged while making genuine self-forgiveness impossible.

This step requires both courage and self-control. The odds are that you're going to experience a fair amount of anger and sorrow from those you've hurt. But if you want to find healing and forgiveness, you have to let it come. Let those you've hurt express their pain without resisting, downplaying, or defending against their charges. They are entitled to their feelings, and they've earned the right to express the hurt you have caused in the way they choose. They may, for instance, refuse to meet with you. In such a case, you might provide your contact information, giving them the option to connect with you in the time and manner of their choosing.

You may have to learn second-hand, from others, what effect your deeds had on those you wronged. What matters is that you make a concerted and committed effort to understand the hurt you've caused while respecting the boundaries the injured parties have established. Let them lead, and be humble, empathetic, and kind as you follow their directives.

Also recognize the impact of your transgression on you

It's nearly inevitable that, when you've hurt someone else, you've also hurt yourself in the process. This may derive from the loss of a relationship or other tangible consequences, or it may be something more abstract: the guilt and shame you feel over what you've done. Self-forgiveness means learning how to feel empathy for yourself, as well. As you work through the process of acknowledging the impact of your actions, you'll need to stop denying that you haven't been hurt by what you did.

At a minimum, you're going to need to come to terms with the fact that you are human with human frailties. You'll need to recognize that you've behaved in a way that is inconsistent with your beliefs, values, and self-concept and, in the process, you've brought the fallout on yourself. This is a critical step if you are to achieve true self-forgiveness and, ultimately, true reformation. Learn to feel self-compassion for the pain that you have caused yourself in order to truly commit to never doing it again.

Humble yourself

One of the reasons that it can be so difficult to forgive yourself when you've messed up is that doing so means that you have to recognize your humanity and, thus, your frailty and imperfection.

For many of us, perfectionism is a character trait that can feel almost impossible to overcome. There are, after all, some advantages to perfectionism. It can be a powerful motivation. It can help us create standards for ourselves that help us be better than what we have been, better, perhaps, than we thought we ever could be. But there's a dark side because, at a certain point, perfectionism can become pathological. It can severely limit our capacity to feel compassion or empathy for ourselves or others. And that can make it nearly impossible to acknowledge our transgressions or forgive ourselves for them.

Ultimately, though, such perfectionism is a self-defeating and self-destructive trait because it operates on a false perception of reality, a perception that we are in complete control of our world and our lives. It's as if demanding unrelenting perfection can shield us from the unpredictable and, above all, from error. And that means that, when we do flub up, as is inevitable, we become mired in guilt and shame. We see it not as a forgivable human mistake but as a token of negligence, laziness, or foolishness — a willful misdeed that was entirely within our control and that must be eternally remembered and punished if it's not to be repeated.

Understand the underlying cause

No one does anything, good or bad, without an incentive. When you've done something wrong, it's important to understand why, not for the purpose of rationalizing or excusing the deed, but to avoid ever doing it again. This isn't easy, of course, because it means coming to terms with the reality that, no matter how remorseful you may feel, there was a part of you that wanted to do what you did. For every action, there's a payoff. For every choice, there's a reason. This means that, if you truly intend to reform, you've got to figure out what your payoff was.

You might have lied on a job application, for instance, to avoid being beaten out by another candidate. Or you might have misled your spouse about the week's income to cover up an ill-timed shopping spree. But, in such cases, there's generally an unconscious incentive that lies even deeper. If you lied on a job application, it may well be because you are insecure about your credentials and your value as an applicant. You may unconsciously be trying to conceal a sense of inferiority. If you are lying to cover your excessive spending, it may be that you are trying to conceal a deeper unhappiness or anxiety that you're using shopping to cope with. In both cases, the transgression of deceit is a tool to help you continue the behavior that gives you an unconscious payoff, making you feel better in the moment.

Apologize, atone, and mean it

Forgiving yourself is about both healing and personal growth, and that means having the strength of character to apologize and try to atone for the hurt you've caused. As a part of this, you must be willing to let those you have hurt dictate the terms of the reconciliation process, which is not easy but is necessary.

Letting the injured party set the conditions and the pace of the reconciliation process is a critical component of acknowledging the pain you've caused and making amends for that pain. Yielding to the other's needs is a humbling process. It requires patience. It means that you don't get to determine what you have to do to be forgiven, nor do you get to decide when you have done enough to warrant forgiveness. It's a way of restoring to the injured party the power you took away from them when you wronged them.

But making amends in this way isn't only about earning the other's forgiveness. It's imperative to the process of forgiving yourself because it shows that you have put in the work. You have not let a hurt go unacknowledged. You have humbled yourself, empathized, and apologized for the pain you have caused, and have done — and are continuing to do — all that is within your power to atone and be reconciled.

Make a difference

When you're seeking forgiveness for a past transgression, your self-esteem is almost inevitably going to take a bruising. As has been shown, when we do wrong to others, we also do wrong to ourselves. We experience pain as well as inflict it, and that can shatter our sense of self. It can make you question the principles and values you profess to hold dear. In other words, your transgressions can take you far away from your sense of your own place and value in the world.

But you can learn to love and esteem yourself again by bringing richness to other people's lives. Get out and do some good in the world. Volunteer at a local food bank or animal rescue. Become a child advocate or a caregiver for seniors. Do something tangible to change people's lives. In the process, you'll be changing your self-narrative, reminding yourself that you are far more than your worst mistakes. It won't erase the past, but it will make for a healthier, happier future.

Make a change

In addition to using the transgression to motivate you to make a positive difference in the world, you can also use it to make a positive change within yourself. If, for example, your transgression was motivated by jealousy, then learn from that mistake and work on your own sense of insecurity.

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes your greatest regret can become your greatest opportunity. The key is to put in the work and commit to reformation and transformation. As we've already seen, nothing happens without a catalyst and a payoff. And that means true growth and change in the aftermath of wrongdoing requires you to do some deep personal reflection.

You're going to have to take a personal inventory to figure out what drives you, and what forces are shaping your behavior, both good and bad. Once you have that understanding, you can begin to work on yourself to amplify the positive influences and to eliminate — or, more precisely — to replace the negative ones. This can be difficult work, and it may be something that you will need the help of professional support, such as the guidance of a trained counselor, to accomplish. But it's a process that will be well worth the effort.

Understand that it will take time

Forgiveness, whether from other people or from yourself, takes time. As you've probably already surmised from what has been discussed in the previous steps, self-forgiveness won't happen overnight and it shouldn't. Healing and growth are a process, not some magical transformation.

Learning to forgive yourself means learning to be patient and let positive change occur over time as you practice personal growth and self-compassion. It also means relinquishing some measure of control. After all, self-forgiveness isn't a solitary endeavor. As you work to make amends to those you have wronged and to become a positive force in the world, you'll find that there are times when you have to proceed not at the pace of your own desires but at the pace of other people's needs. That's a powerful lesson in humility, empathy, patience, and self-control.

Your drive to escape the fallout, to avoid any reminder of the pain you have caused, will instinctively make you want to rush through the process. But that's evasion, not healing. As you become increasingly able to tolerate the process, to move through discomfort toward insight, growth, and change, the more possible genuine self-forgiveness becomes.

Recognize that forgiving doesn't mean forgetting

As we've seen, one of the primary reasons people resist self-forgiveness is because it feels as if they will be excusing — and forgetting about — the event. That couldn't be further from the truth. Forgiveness doesn't mean the transgression will be forgotten or that it didn't matter or was okay. What it does mean, however, is that you've chosen to learn and grow from the event, to turn it into a positive for yourself and for others, including, ideally, those who have been hurt by your deed.

Shifting your mindset about what self-forgiveness really means, though, will take time and practice. That's because self-forgiveness, at the end of the day, is not an end state. It's a tool, a coping mechanism. You have to practice it — and keep practicing it — as you would any other learned skill.

This includes learning how to manage both your own self-doubt and the criticism of others. The reality, after all, is that there will be some people who hold a grudge. There will be times when anger flares up and, yes, times even when old resentments that you thought were dead and buried rear their ugly heads again. You have to be prepared for that and able to remain steadfast in the knowledge that self-forgiveness is a virtue and a necessity, not a luxury or a crutch.

Give yourself permission to move forward

We already know that self-forgiveness is hard work and a slow process. And because it's a learned behavior, a skill, the process doesn't always move in a straight, predictable line. But, as you learn, atone, and grow, you'll also begin to move forward. You cannot change the past. You can't erase the transgression, but you also can't remain stuck in it. Eventually, you must move on, secure in the knowledge that you are not the same person you were when you committed the act.

You'll have to let the past be the past because it is a reality that cannot be changed but can be used to your own benefit and the benefit of others, including those you hurt. And that requires you to step out of yesterday's hurt and into today's healing and tomorrow's hope, no longer defined by the memory of who you were then but with the promise of who you are now: a person who has grieved for the hurt they have caused and who has been transformed by it.

Once you can do this, you're ready to forgive yourself and move forward, armed with the humility, insight, and empathy that only error and remorse can bring. Equipped with the gifts of compassion for yourself and others, you can begin to forge a bright and happy future safe from a repetition of the mistakes of the past.