4 Ways to Forgive Yourself, Even When It Feels Impossible

Helpful strategies for moving on.

Almost everyone has moments they can't seem to forgive themselves for. You know the ones: They randomly resurface in your mind, tormenting you—the time you said an unkind thing about your best friend and they were standing right behind you; the time you turned in work riddled with mistakes to your boss; or maybe you cheated on someone, or lied, or stole. If these memories taunt you—whether warranted or not—you haven't forgiven yourself yet. And no matter what it is you did, you should.

Forgiving yourself is important because if you don't, you risk letting these misguided actions redefine your sense of who you are, says John Delony, Ph.D., a mental health expert and the host of the Dr. John Delony Show.

There's a common misconception that refusing to forgive yourself proves you're more sorry, but what it actually does is hold you back, he explains. "We may feel like approaching the world through the worst thing we've done buys us extra grace, but it doesn't," says Delony. "It actually causes us to enter into relationships in a down position. Perhaps more importantly, choosing not to forgive yourself is really choosing to live life less joyfully," he says.

So if learning to forgive yourself is so important, how do you do it? Delony offers tips and strategies for finally letting go of the actions that haunt you.

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Disconnect Your Mistake From Your Identity

If you're beating yourself up for doing something wrong, and then beating yourself up for beating yourself up, you're never going to feel better.

Instead, acknowledge that your guilt did serve a purpose, but that purpose isn't torturing yourself for eternity. "Your brain has a vested interest in making sure at all times that you remember you're a person capable of hurting somebody, so that you never do it again," he says. This is why these mistakes end up feeling so overwhelming to us—we don't want to make them again, so our brains harp on them to create a constant warning signal.

But if you can recognize that you haven't done it again, and that the memory is serving its purpose, you can begin to stop obsessing. "It's hard, because your body has such a vested interest in you not forgetting what you did," says Delony. "You have to decide: This is a thing that happened, not who I am." Rather than carrying the fear you'll mess up again around as a constant threat, says Delony, turn it into wisdom: I learned my lesson, and I won't do that again.

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Write Down Your Thoughts

Journaling is a powerful tool in all kinds of psychological healing, but here it can be especially helpful. "One of the things I suggest when someone is struggling with self-forgiveness is to write down their feelings and demand evidence from them," says Delony. "So you could write down, for example, I am a liar, I am not trustworthy. And then you'd look at that and demand evidence." Ask yourself: Are you actually untrustworthy, or did you just do one untrustworthy thing one time?

Explore the answer in your writing, by, for example, listing the untrustworthy things you've done. You may find it's a pretty short list, dominated by the memory you haven't forgiven yourself for. "My guess is, if that idea is still bothering you years later, you are a really trustworthy person that got caught up in a situation." Once you see that there isn't proof that you are inherently bad, it becomes easier to give yourself grace for your mistake.

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Ask for Forgiveness

Odds are, if you did something bad enough that you haven't forgiven yourself for it, there was probably someone else involved. And part of forgiving yourself is letting the other party or parties know that you know you were in the wrong.

"The only way to feel whole is to be vulnerable and speak up," says Delony. "So if you do something really bad, step one is to say it out loud and take ownership of your role in what happened. And the next part is to ask for forgiveness," he says. "And you can't hinge your thoughts on whether you get that forgiveness or not. You don't get to decide what forgiveness looks like."

In other words, the other person or people may not forgive you, and that's OK. You've had a narrative in your head that you were wrong, and you've now let them know that you feel that way. What they do next doesn't have to stop you from forgiving yourself. They are entitled to their feelings, just as you are entitled to stop torturing yourself.

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Accept the Consequences

Forgiving yourself means understanding you may have deserved the consequence you faced, but that the punishment doesn't have to weigh on you forever. "You may have been fired because of a lie you told at work. You have to be willing to divorce the consequence from your identity," says Delony. But in this example, getting fired is a commensurate consequence for lying—you don't have to define yourself as a liar (nor do you have to assume that forgiving yourself means you were in the right).

"Does that mean you're always a liar? No, it means you lied one time." Delony suggests thinking of the consequences as a path to a fresh start: "Here's who I was. Who am I going to be in the future? That is the path to overcome guilt." Once you've laid out a vision for how you'll incorporate what you've learned from your mistake into your future, you'll notice you're less and less hung up on your old mistake.

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