Forgive Yourself

One of the 11 Insight cards I give my patients to help them reduce their Cultural Stress includes the simple statement, “Forgive yourself.”


Most people understand the need to ask forgiveness of others we may have wronged, but it is just as important to forgive ourselves…because self-forgiveness is a necessary condition for self-acceptance and inner peace. After all, there’s no one we listen to more than the voice in our head. If we’re holding onto shame and embarrassment for past failures and shortcomings—real or imagined—then the voice in our head is likely to be critical and accusatory. It’s very hard to live with a voice that is full of condemnation.

Not a single one of us is perfect, and even though we know this, most of us hold on to impossibly high standards for ourselves. Fearful of criticism, we strive for perfection in every area of our lives. When we inevitably fail, we punish ourselves with bitter regrets and recriminations. And the irony is, we tend to punish ourselves far more than we would punish someone else! If a friend hurts our feelings and apologizes, for example, we’re usually happy to forgive them and let it go. But when we ourselves make a mistake or inadvertently hurt someone, we can hold on to the self-recriminations the rest of our lives!

I know that many people are reluctant to forgive themselves, fearing it’s self-indulgent. But if you can’t forgive yourself for making mistakes now and then, then you can never try anything new. You can never take any risks. You can never grow.

Mistakes are a necessary part of learning—which is a rule that applies to relationships, as well as any other aspect of our lives. Much as we would like to avoid hurting the people we care about, we inevitably do, even if unintentionally. By the same token, much as we would like to avoid disappointing someone, sometimes we must, even if only to be true to ourselves. It’s important to forgive ourselves for those times. After all, you can’t possibly be true to yourself if you’re always being true to everyone else.

How many times did you fall down when you were learning to walk? How many times did you stumble over a new word when learning to read? How many times did you make a mistake while learning to play tennis or basketball, or to salsa dance, or play the piano?

Of course, the answer is “Many.” I like to think of those mistakes as stepping stones on the way to self-knowledge and mastery. They’re opportunities to evaluate our behavior and identify areas where we want to make improvements. That’s all. They’re not indicators of a character defect unless we refuse to acknowledge them.

Imagine if you were learning a sport and your coach kept bringing up the last time you missed a shot. Good coaches don’t do that; they don’t keep reminding you of your mistakes. They use the opportunity of the mistake to identify a problem and show you how to do better. I encourage my patients to be their own good coach: when you make a mistake, welcome it as a learning opportunity. Apologize and make amends, yes. And then, forgive yourself.


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