Forgive yourself. Let it go. Forget about it. Move on. 

It’s easy to say, but so much harder to actually do! We all mess up sometimes, whether it’s lashing out at a friend, engaging in self-destructive behavior, or cutting corners at work. And with those mistakes often come overwhelming feelings of guilt. Shame. Self-condemnation. Humiliation.

Counselors and life coaches have found that these emotions can lead to stress, depression, anxiety disorders, and even heart disease if ignored. Not exactly the formula for a happy life! Fortunately, if you learn how to forgive yourself and decide to let go of the guilt, you can circumvent these negative effects and live better.

What Is Forgiveness? Why Is It So Important?

Forgiveness is a deliberate decision to let go of negative emotions toward yourself or another person. The negative emotions that you might experience prior to forgiveness include those mentioned earlier: guilt, shame, self-condemnation, humiliation, as well as resentment or bitterness.

Forgiving mistakes or wrongdoings is incredibly important to your well-being. Dr. Frederic Luskin at Stanford University reports that “learning to forgive helps people hurt less, experience less anger, feel less stress and suffer less depression. People who learn to forgive report significantly fewer symptoms of stress such as backache, muscle tension, dizziness, headaches, and upset stomachs. In addition, people report improvements in appetite, sleep patterns, energy, and general well-being.”

Forgiving yourself and others allows you to release negativity and focus on a more positive future. It also enables you to improve relationships with those closest to you.

Why Is Self-Forgiveness So Hard?

Too often, we punish ourselves for past mistakes, as if we could somehow “make up” the wrong that we’ve done. We walk through each day feeling less-than. We call ourselves losers and no good. We live chained to our past, holding on to hurts and grudges. And though no one else may know about our secret pain, the negative emotions we feel gnaw away at our joy and satisfaction in life.

Counselors and life coaches report that the hardest person to forgive is yourself. Not the friend who backstabbed you. Or the dad that wasn’t there for you. Or even the ex who broke your heart.

Why? Because you know yourself and you live with yourself every day. Go figure.

How to Embrace Forgiveness: 4 Tips for People Stuck in Past Failures

1. Talk about it.

When it comes to the past, silence can be deadly. So stop pretending. Free yourself from the bondage of holding it all in and talk about what’s tearing you apart inside. Express the emotions you feel to a counselor, mentor, or friend you can trust. Forgiveness starts with being honest and vulnerable about who you are… the good and the bad. So say what you need to say.

2. Be honest with yourself.

We tend to think, “If I just pretend it never happened, maybe it will all go away.” Sounds nice… but it isn’t true. Choose to break out of denial and be proactive. Be honest about how you’ve messed up and the consequences of your behavior. Journal out the specific behaviors and actions that are causing you angst.

3. Accept it for what it is.

As an imperfect person, you will make mistakes in life. Face it. You will hurt people sometimes. You will have regrets. It’s part of living in a less-than-perfect world. But you have a choice.

Either your past will keep you in a rut of guilt and shame or you will accept it for what it is and experience the freedom to move on and enjoy the now. Self-acceptance is critical to your emotional health, so don’t miss out!

4. Let go.

Don’t hold on to guilt. You don’t need to justify your past actions or try to prove yourself. Letting go of the past means burying it and giving up your right to engage in self-condemnation. Forgiveness is a choice but also a process. It’s choosing to stop hating yourself or cutting yourself down and to start seeing yourself as a valuable human being.

One of the first steps of letting go is to just get it out there. Please feel free to use the comments below to let it go or apologize for something that has been on your chest for years.

You can use an anonymous name (and the email will NEVER be shown). Your post will be added to the wall below. It’s okay — you can let it go.

Developing Realistic Expectations

Evaluate the expectations you (and others) set for you. Are they healthy? Or are they unrealistic?

If you find yourself never being able to measure up — no matter how hard you try — you may just need to change a few things in your approach to life. Healthy expectations are achievable and fulfilling, not draining and overwhelming.

Make a Deal with Yourself

It’s time to make a deal with yourself to…

  • let the past be past and live in the present
  • stop beating yourself up about something that happened two or five or ten years ago
  • banish guilt and shame from controlling your thoughts and behaviors
  • accept and respect yourself as you are… in spite of your screw-ups

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Lewis B. Smedes 

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Dr. Anthony Centore

Anthony Centore, PhD

Anthony Centore, PhD, is Founder and Chair at Thriveworks — a counseling practice focused on premium client care, with 340+ locations across the US. Anthony is a Private Practice Consultant for the American Counseling Association, columnist for Counseling Today magazine, and author of "How to Thrive in Counseling Private Practice". He is a multistate Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and has been quoted in national media sources including The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and CBS Sunday Morning.

Check out “Leaving Depression Behind: An Interactive, Choose Your Path Book” written by AJ Centore and Taylor Bennett."