It’s usually far more difficult to forgive ourselves when we hurt others than it is to forgive someone else who hurt us. Let’s take a closer look today at how to forgive yourself for hurting someone.
It doesn’t take much to spark our inner critic. We might second-guess our behavior with the checker at the grocery store, or wonder if the way we spoke about a coworker might have been gossip.
When we realize that we’ve hurt someone, it can be incredibly difficult to forgive ourselves.
What is Self Forgiveness?
At some point in the therapy process, most clients have a moment of realization when they say, “I think I need to forgive myself.”
Inevitably, their follow-up thought sounds like, “But I don’t know how to forgive myself.”
I love this moment. Forgiveness is a tricky subject. We like to talk about it in trite ways: You just need to forgive yourself. But we rarely take a moment to break down what forgiveness means, let alone how we can forgive ourselves and others.
Take a moment and ask yourself: What do you think forgiveness means?
This is far more difficult to answer than most people realize at first glance.
Let’s start by going over what forgiveness is NOT…
- pretending the offense never happened
- believing the offense will never happen again
- releasing the offender from consequences related to the offense
Merriam-Webster defines “forgive” as “to cease to feel resentment against (an offender).” I love this definition! Forgiveness is releasing resentments. It’s about letting go of a grudge. Holding a grudge against anyone – including ourselves – wears on us. (If you’re curious to learn more about how holding a grudge negatively impacts us, you might like Piedmont’s article: What does holding a grudge do to your health?)
It follows, then, that when we forgive ourselves, we let go of resentment towards ourselves.
…Easier said than done!
How to Forgive Yourself for Hurting Someone
I’ll be honest with you: I don’t love a lot of the advice out there for how to practice self forgiveness. Much of it sounds trite, like if you get a mani-pedi and remind yourself that you’re a good person, suddenly you’ll be able to forgive yourself.
This isn’t at all how it works!
When I walk clients through the process of self forgiveness, it’s often a long and painful journey. Here are some steps help you to move toward self forgiveness:
1. Name your core belief
We all make mistakes, and we make them often! But sometimes certain mistakes have a way of sticking to us and it’s hard to let them go.
When we have difficulty forgiving ourselves for a particular mistake, it may be a sign that it’s confirming an unhealthy core belief of ours.
What do I mean by this? Let’s take a look at an example.
Let’s imagine a mom who one day loses her patience and raises her voice at her children.
If she holds a core belief that she is a good mother who genuinely cares about her children, she can frame this mistake as a deviation from who she is. Maybe she was having an especially rough day. She can forgive herself more easily and make changes where she needs to help minimize that mistake happening again.
If she holds a core belief that she is not a good mother, this mistake may simply confirm her belief about herself. No amount of positive affirmation from others can undo the shame until she learns to undo her belief that she is not a good mother.
When we make a mistake, we tend to check it against our beliefs about ourselves. If a mistake doesn’t align with how we see ourselves, we can forgive ourselves quickly. If the mistake is consistent with a negative core belief we hold, we can go to a dark place.
If you’re having trouble forgiving yourself for hurting someone else, check yourself to see what core beliefs your error might seem to be confirming for you.
2. Do a reality check
Once you name the core beliefs this mistake seems to highlight, check the accuracy of your core beliefs.
From our earlier example, if you do believe you’re not a good mom, it’s time to get some evidence. Try to take an honest perspective, rather than simply highlighting your laundry list of mistakes. We all make mistakes, but there’s a good chance that you have a list of gifts and strengths too. Were there any moments when you did an awesome job being mom?
When we hold a negative core belief, this can be an incredibly difficult process. Often we have trained our brain to only see the mistakes that confirm our fears rather than being able to do an accurate reality check of the full gamut of evidence available. Try to see if you can “catch yourself doing good” throughout the day and write down those moments to help you recall them.
3. Ask for feedback
Many of us need backup to accurately check the reality of our core beliefs. It’s helpful to have your trusted friends and loved ones offer feedback to help you.
Of course, anyone with a heart of kindness would offer you positive feedback. I mean, imagine if your friend came to you and said, “I yelled at my kids, I’m afraid I’m a terrible mom.” Of course your knee-jerk reaction would be to say, “You’re not a terrible mom!” But it’s important to go beyond that.
So if you reach out to a loved one to help you check your core beliefs, really get into the nitty gritty. Ask them to help you see the evidence they see that shows your negative core belief is inaccurate.
4. Repeat as needed
I mentioned this is a process. Even if you have a healing interaction with your loved one and you feel a release of self forgiveness, you will make a mistake again sooner or later. You may need to repeat this process several times as you learn to retrain your core beliefs to more accurately reflect a balanced reality.
Ya’ll, self forgiveness is a beast of a process. If you’re trying all these strategies and it’s just not getting you where you need to be, a trained professional may be able to help you. This blog post isn’t professional counseling or clinical advice, so seek that help in-person if you need it.
Dr. Marie Fang is a licensed psychologist offering therapy and counseling services to individuals in the Silicon Valley. Her office is located in central San Jose. She specializes in anxiety counseling, identity counseling, and faith counseling. Learn more about Dr. Marie Fang’s Counseling Services.