Most of us are our own worst critics. We bully ourselves when we fall short of perfection, carry around past regrets, and refuse to let ourselves off the hook for any transgressions.
Unless this cycle is stopped, it can lead to persistent self-inflicted suffering. Studies show that those who have a hard time forgiving themselves are more likely to experience heart attacks, high blood pressure, depression, and addiction.
Fred Luskin, PhD, director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, told Prevention there are four things that are hardest for people to forgive themselves for:
- You fail at some major life task such as making your marriage work.
- Your actions have hurt someone else.
- You've hurt yourself by the way you've led your life: drinking or doing something else that's self-destructive.
- You didn't do something you thought you should, such as intervene in a family dispute or put money away so your kid can go to college.
Some of us take those bad feelings and wrap them around ourselves like a blanket of pain, instead of taking responsibility and making things right.
"Forgiveness is a tool with which we face what we've done in the past, acknowledge our mistakes, and move on. It does not mean that you condone or excuse what happened. It does not mean that you forget," says Luskin.
"There's a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that. But the season ends; the world moves on. And we need to move on with it," Luskin adds.
Luskin has a process that can help people go from feeling wounded to grateful.
1. Understand the offense and your feelings
Take another look at the four things that are hardest to forgive ourselves for and see where your behavior falls on the list. "Categorizing the offense begins the forgiveness process," he says. "It allows you to break down what you did, look at it, get a little distance, and begin healing."
Once you are able to articulate the offense and the damage it caused others, share it with a few trusted friends. Confiding in others can be a positive reminder that we all make mistakes. It also prevents you from slipping into denial.
You should also reconsider if what you did was really that bad in the first place. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations for our own behavior which can lead to feelings of guilt when, in reality, our behavior was appropriate given the circumstances.
2. How do you want to feel?
How do you want to feel after you've found forgiveness? Luskin says you should want to get rid of the "shame, release the blame, and feel calm and whole at your center."
3. Hit stop on your thoughts and emotions
Realize that the feelings you are carrying around are what's making you feel terrible, not what you did all those days, months, or years ago. When you start ruminating on the event that brings you guilt, pause and refocus your attention on something positive.
A great way to do that is to focus on a good deed you may have done recently or how you've changed since the event took place.
Luskin also recommends trying PERT (Positive Emotion Refocusing Technique). Close your eyes, draw in a long breath, then slowly exhale as you relax your belly. Take a deep breath two more times and on the third one, create a mental image of a beautiful place in nature.
Breathe deeply as your mind explores the beauty around you, whether it's a beach, mountain top, or the calming waters of a stream. Allow the positive feelings you create to center around your heart.
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4. Apologize and make amends
Being forgiven by someone else can help us forgive ourselves. Making a sincere apology to someone affected by your actions can go a long way towards helping you heal yourself.
Next, you can try to right the wrong by making amends to the person you hurt. "Do good rather than feel bad," Luskin says.
5. Reframe your behavior
Instead of thinking about the event and casting yourself as the bad guy, look at the entirety of the situation and recast yourself as the hero. When you tell yourself the story of what happened, be sure to consider how you've overcome a failure and turned it into something good. Focus on what you've learned from going through the ordeal and give yourself credit for how you've changed.
6. Replace guilt with gratitude
Finally, replace your negative feelings of guilt with positive feelings of gratitude. Look around and appreciate all that you have, whether it's the breath in your lungs, the shoes on your feet, or the people you love in your life.
Cultivating an attitude of gratitude can extinguish any lingering feelings of guilt and shame and put you back on the path of loving yourself again.