The Gift of Self-Forgiveness

By Dr. Gretchen KubackySelf-Care

You’ve fallen off the diet wagon. Again.

Six months later and you’re still not pregnant.

Two weeks have passed since you’ve set foot in that gym.

If this were you, what would your reaction be? Inevitably, we all end up failing to reach our goals sometimes, and sooner or later even the most disciplined person is going to have a lapse. What happens then?

Odds are, you will react to this by treating yourself harshly. You might call yourself lazy, unmotivated, a failure, or other epithets unsuitable for a family blog. This might be a typical reaction for many people, but alas it is an extremely unhelpful one. Treating yourself harshly in face of setbacks, such as by becoming self-critical, can backfire by making you even less likely to succeed in the long-run. The reason for this has to do with shame.

When we do something wrong, it is normal (and often healthy) to feel some amount of guilt. Guilt is when we feel bad for what we did. However, often we instead shame ourselves. Shame is when we feel bad for who we are. So instead of saying to yourself, “I shouldn’t have eaten that piece of chocolate,” you instead might say, “I’m a pig!” This self-shaming then lowers morale, worsens feelings of anxiety or depression, and can create a downward cycle.

So how to stop this cycle of self-shaming in the face of mistakes? With self-forgiveness! Self-forgiveness, also often referred to as self-compassion, involves cutting out the self-shaming and instead actively working to bring peaceful, calming feelings to the perceived failure. Not only does this improve your self-esteem and mental health, but it can also increase your motivation to self-improve!

Here’s one way to practice self-forgiveness:

  1. Identify the mistake (e.g., “I cheated on my diet.”)
  2. Take responsibility for what happened (e.g., “Nobody forced me to do it, I made the choice.”)
  3. Take a few moments to think about the incident, and pay attention to what comes up for you. Listen closely for any messages of self-condemnation (e.g., “I’m a failure; I’m fat; I’m weak.”)
  4. Remind yourself that those messages of self-condemnation are not true. They are simply negative messages you have received from the past and from the outside world. They are not you.
  5. Close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and give yourself some positive affirmations, such as reminding yourself that mistakes and setbacks are a normal part of growth, and that you are worthy as a person.
  6. Tell yourself, out loud if possible, that you forgive yourself and that you will continue to do your best.

 
There are many ways we can practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness. Can you think of others? They can be quick and easy, such as simply giving ourselves a big hug, or laughing at our own mistakes instead of shaming ourselves for them.
The key is that, because many of us are used to treating ourselves so harshly for most of our lives, self-forgiveness takes some active effort on our part as well as repetition for it to sink in. It’s ok if forgiving yourself does not immediately make you feel better. This is a practice that plants seeds for the future, and the more you practice it the better you will get at it. Treat yourself as well as you deserve!

References:
Breines, J. G., & Chen, S. (2012). Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1133–1143. http://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212445599