As the year draws to a close, we may become conscious of the things we meant to do but didn’t. Then there are the things we didn’t do, but wanted to do. Let’s not forget the things we did that went badly. Self-forgiveness is one way to shake off the dust of the old year and welcome in the new.
Self-forgiveness is critical to well-being, but to be effective, it needs to be paired with taking responsibility. Who is it that you have harmed? If there’s someone besides yourself involved, you need to have the courage to talk to them and get their side of the situation.
Research suggests that, while self-forgiveness reduces uncomfortable feelings like shame, it can also reduce empathy for others. When you talk with the other, find out how they felt. Acknowledge your wrongdoing and take responsibility for it. Then check with them to assess the damage and ask how you might make amends. What can you do that will truly make a difference to the other?
It’s helpful to understand the difference between guilt and shame. Often, when we do something wrong we (or the people around us) imagine that it makes us a bad person. That is shame. If, instead, you understand that you are a basically good person who did the wrong thing, it puts you in a more resourceful place. You can correct bad behavior. You can learn new skills. If you feel guilty about something, it’s a signal that you may have made a mistake and harmed someone. Consider it an invitation to connect with the injured party and make amends.
What if you are the one you’ve harmed? Psychologist Rick Hanson suggests that you imagine that, in addition to an inner critic, you have an inner protector. He outlines a 10-step process of self-forgiveness, which includes bolstering your inner protector by remembering others who care for you and reminding yourself of your good qualities. Then, acknowledge the facts of what happened and what was in your mind at the time. Sort out which parts of the situation are your responsibility, and which aren’t. (Remember you are not responsible for other people’s emotional responses.) What can you learn from the experience? How might you make amends?
Hanson advises that you actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, or in writing, something like: “I forgive myself for _________ . I’ve taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better.”
You will know that you have forgiven when you feel in your heart that what you needed to learn has been learned, and that what you needed to do has been done. You can leave the situation behind you and move on feeling energized about what’s next.