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The Power of Self-Forgiveness

Forgiving others is (usually) easy. Most of us are more than willing to forgive friends or family members when they accidentally offend or hurt us in some way. They’re only human, after all. So why is self-forgiveness so hard?

Self-forgiveness is something that many of us don’t think about deliberately, even though we may be struggling with it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, if you don’t focus on it and work on forgiving yourself, you’re a lot less likely to do the things you want to do and become the person you want to be.

Letting go of your former self

Progress can hurt. You’re developing a new mindset, one that you hope will serve you better and lead you to a brighter future. But as good as that sounds, the path isn’t necessarily easy. You’re stretching new muscles, learning new things, and thinking in new ways. You’re challenging yourself in ways that you’ve never been challenged before. It can be uncomfortable, and even scary. 

And there’s one more thing that makes progress hard: you have to let go of your former self.

That might sound a little drastic, but think about it: if you can’t let go of your current mindset, how are you ever going to truly latch on to a new one? We have to relinquish who we were in order to become who we want to be.

Think of the ultimate example of metamorphosis: a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. If the caterpillar becomes the butterfly, but doesn’t want to let go of his caterpillar self, then he’ll likely spend his days crawling on twigs instead of soaring to new heights.

Judging your former self

The problem is, trying to let go of your former self tends to invite self-judgement. It can be excruciating to look back on your former self and be able to clearly see your shortcomings, mistakes, and failures. It’s like that moment when you open up your middle-school yearbook and see your 8th grade picture staring back in all its awkward glory. Cringeworthy. 

I’ve talked about my weight loss journey on this blog before, so let me use that as an example.

When I decided I had to lose that weight, I was determined to change my mindset around food. I was committed to dropping the pounds and moving forward. Visualizing what my life would be like after I lost the weight, I had hope for a promising future and a new life.

And then, the judgmental thoughts came.

“You could have been doing this all along. You SHOULD have been doing this all along. Look how much time you wasted.”

“You were so lazy. How did you not see how unhealthy you were?!”

“You wouldn’t have to lose so much weight right now if you’d just kept things in check all along.”

You get the idea. 

These thoughts didn’t lessen my motivation to lose the weight, per se, but they definitely had a demoralizing effect.

When you judge yourself, it’s really easy for shame to show up in full force. And shame is going to do nothing but hold you back. 

Self-forgiveness

This is where self-forgiveness becomes vital to progress. You have to be able to look at your past self with compassion, kindness, and empathy. When you can do that, you’ll be able to forgive yourself for who you used to be, what you used to think, or how you used to behave. 

And when you’re able to forgive yourself, you’ll discover an inner power that will help you progress even more.

The benefits of self-forgiveness

A lack of self-forgiveness holds you back in more ways than one. In some instances, it manifests itself in very real ways. People suffering with eating disorders or alcoholism, for example, tend to have low levels of self-forgiveness. 

Self-forgiveness is healthy. In fact, it is correlated with:

Self-forgiveness can also help you in less measurable (though just as important) ways. For one, self-forgiveness makes it more likely that you’ll actually learn from your mistakes. If you aren’t able to forgive yourself, you’ll likely just code the behavior as “bad” without looking for the lesson you might have learned. Similarly, self-forgiveness provides us with the opportunity to develop empathy (making it easier to forgive others because we know what it feels like), and ownership (being able to recognize our mistakes without it making us feel less worthy as human beings). 

Above all else, self-forgiveness will propel your progress toward a new mindset and a new you. Think of it this way: if someone else wronged you, and you weren’t able to forgive them, what would happen to the relationship? It would likely go stagnant, or at least not develop like it could have. Similarly, if you can’t forgive yourself, your relationship with yourself (what we sometimes refer to as self-awareness) will suffer, and you won’t be able to move forward.

Thoughts of self-forgiveness

Of course, as we’ve already established, forgiving yourself doesn’t always come naturally to people. But sometimes, all it takes is the right thought to help you move away from self-judgement and toward self-forgiveness.

Here are some thoughts that might help you make the shift.

“I know better now.”

When you know better, you do better. You are a different person now than you used to be. You can’t hold your former self up to your current standard. The former you had less experience and less knowledge than you have now. Would you judge a kindergartner for not being able to do long division? (I sincerely hope not.)

“I was doing the best I could.”

Along those same lines, it can also help to remind yourself that you were doing the best you could with the resources, knowledge, and energy you had at the time. Your life was different then. Maybe you were going through a medical challenge, a family crisis, or even just a period of being home with young children all day, every day. Whatever your season of life was then, you were doing the best you could to handle it. And you’re doing the best you can to handle your new season of life now.

“I can’t change the past.”

This might sound like a discouraging thought, but in reality, it can actually help you let go of the resentment and anger you’re holding on to. The fact is, you can’t go back in time and change the things you did or said. You can’t change who you were. So stop trying! Let go. Acknowledge that you made the mistake, had a flawed mindset, or said something stupid—and move on. Trying desperately to “control” things that have already happened is just going to leave you feeling frustrated and discouraged. Which brings us to…

“I can learn from my past self.”

“The past can hurt.

But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”

Rafiki, The Lion King

You can’t change what your past self did, but you can take advantage of it. Take the time to extract lessons from your past actions—even (and maybe especially) the ones you aren’t proud of. 

The reason that fables (think “The Little Red Hen” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”) have withstood the test of time is that they allow us to learn from the experiences of others. In these cases, they’re fictional characters; think of how powerful it could be to learn from your own story.

“Old thoughts served me in the past. My new thoughts will serve me in the future.”

Self-forgiveness requires hope. Recognizing that your new thoughts bring hope for a happier future can make it easier to move past your past mistakes and forgive your former self. It’s time to let go and move forward.

The role of religion in self-forgiveness

It’s difficult to talk about self-forgiveness (or any kind of forgiveness, really) without at least mentioning the role that religion plays in the conversation.

This is because many religions are basically centered around the idea of self-forgiveness: that you can completely let go of a former version of yourself and discover a higher, “holier” version. Plus, the idea of “grace,” which is a key belief among Christian religions, encourages self-forgiveness as it implies that no sin is impossible to overcome. 

That’s not to say that being religious automatically equals higher levels of self-forgiveness. In fact, some religious beliefs (e.g. the portrayal of God as a “vengeful” God) may lend themselves more to self-judgement. However, the cycle of “sin, forgive, repeat” is undeniably common in the religious world.

This concept could even be taken out of religion to include non-religious groups. After all, almost everyone is searching for truth, improvement, and enlightenment, in one way or another. Self-forgiveness it seems, is a universal truth!

Speak your new truth.

Once you’ve forgiven yourself, you’ve empowered yourself to speak your new truth. You’ve given yourself permission to move forward, glean what lessons you can from the past, and leave the guilt and shame behind. 

We want to help you speak your new, powerful, and productive truth. That’s why we’ve designed our unique assessment to help you create a focus statement that can spark powerful change in your life. (Bonus: it’s free!) We also offer affirmation packs that encourage you to literally speak meaningful truths that will resonate with you deeply. (Learn more about the power of affirmations, here.)

However you choose to speak your truth, once you are able to do it from a place of self-forgiveness, you will feel more freedom and clarity in your life than ever before. 

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