If you’ve done something hurtful — lied to your partner, offended a friend, belittled a co-worker — the “let it go” advice when it comes to your guilty ruminating is naive, if not unethical. Shame, sorrow and self-blame may be warranted after you’ve wronged someone. But it’s not healthy — or productive — to hold on to those feelings forever. Self-forgiveness has been related to lower levels of anxiety, mood disturbances, hostility and rumination. Whether or not the other person forgives you, can you forgive yourself?
To be clear, self-forgiveness is not about easing your guilt or sidestepping responsibility. (Although if you’re the brooding, overthinking type, it’s unlikely that’s what you’re after.) Self-forgiveness is about allowing yourself to move forward once you’ve acknowledged your folly and done your best to make amends. Marilyn Cornish, Ph.D., professor of counseling at Auburn University College of Education in Auburn, Alabama, developed a four-part therapeutic model for self-forgiveness that may help you on the path to pardoning yourself.
In this stage, accept the blame for what you’ve done. Stop making excuses (“I was pushed to my breaking point”), rationalizing your behavior (“He did the same thing to me!”) and faulting other people (“I wouldn’t have done X if she hadn’t done Y.”). Self-forgiveness without first accepting responsibility is hollow.
Work through your feelings of shame and guilt with a goal toward empathy rather than self-criticism. Your shame doesn’t do your hurt friend or partner any good, but your repentance might.
Your remorse should lead you to try to repair what you’ve broken. Apologize, do what you can to right your wrong, and commit to learning from your mistake and avoiding it in the future.
“Set aside your lingering self-punishment,” Cornish writes, and approach yourself with compassion, acceptance, respect and kindness. Write yourself a letter of forgiveness that includes the lessons you’ve learned from the experience and the positive changes you’ve made as a result.
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