8 Thoughts on Our Mistakes and How to Forgive Yourself

How to forgive yourself for mistakes

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Mistakes are part of life. Almost every one of us has at least one blunder that continues to bother us for years or even decades. Many mistakes have a profound effect on the course of countless lives. Some people never recover. They continue living with regrets, fantasizing about how their life could’ve turned out if they made the right choice at a particular time.

Mistakes themselves don’t cause long-term suffering. It’s the inability to recover from the fall what causes the pain.

Imagine losing all of your savings in a risky investment. The pain will only last until you recover financially. After recovery, that mistake will only be remembered as a lesson learned the hard way. Or if your loved one left you because of your own misbehavior. It will suck for a while. But once you find new love, your pain will vanish pretty quickly.

But what if you haven’t been able to recover from your mistakes? What if your regrets continue tormenting you? How do you liberate yourself from the pain? Let’s examine a few points and see if we can find a solution.

Cliches people say that don’t mean much

“Everyone makes mistakes.”

“Yeah, Joe, robbing that bank was a mistake. But everyone makes mistakes. I once asked for a water cup at Subway and filled it with Sprite, for example.” Well that should relieve Joe from his guilt.

Not all mistakes are equal in significance. Some have far greater ramifications than others. So, comforting yourself with other people’s stupidity is only effective with trivial blunders, not when your fate depends on it.

Even if others are as screwed up as I am, why should that make me feel any better? Just because others are lazy I should feel better about my wasted decades? Just because my neighbor mistreats his family, I should consider my hurtful actions normal?

When you’re alone with yourself, other people’s mistakes don’t matter. They will not relieve you from the guilt and consequences of your past misjudgments.

“You have to forgive yourself.”

Forgiving yourself is much harder than forgiving someone else. In fact, it’s a completely different process. Let’s take a look at how a conflict and forgiveness works between two or more people.

First, one party treats the other as inferior through emotional or physical mistreatment. For example, when one person lies, she believes that the other is not worthy to know the truth. A bully suggests that the victim is inferior enough to receive the cruel treatment. There is always some power dynamic involved in mistreatment. One assumes superiority over the other.

When the guilty party asks for forgiveness, they acknowledge their own shortcoming. It’s a humbling experience that liberates them from guilt, and dignifies the victim. As a result both parties win - one feels guilt-free, other feels empowered.

You can’t do the same with your own self. “Just forgiving” requires at least two people. It’s like saying “I feel altruistic today”, and donating yourself 100 bucks. Forgiving yourself requires a much different approach.

What causes us to make mistakes

There are two reasons why people make mistakes: either because of ignorance - they just don’t know any better, or because their rational thinking was clouded with emotions - pride, fear, pain, anger, greed, etc.

Have you heard of “pride comes before the fall”? Why? Pride is unreasonable. It’s an emotional state in which you believe you figured out the system of life better than others. It clouds your judgement. Fear, anger, and pain, on the other hand, are emotions that indicate lack of control over own life. If you become emotional in either way - mistakes are bound to happen.

It takes time to heal pain

The people that claim they were able to forgive themselves miss one crucial point. They forget to mention that in order to forgive themselves, months or years had to pass. You see, with time, our perception of the past usually develops into a lighter version of events. Remembering the negative stuff doesn’t feel good, so we construct our own memories. Otherwise, vividly remembering all embarrassments and failures would drive us insane.

So you always have to give it time. Time heals.

There is a ‘but’ though. If you don’t take any actions towards improving yourself and your life, time will only work against you. Your mistakes will continue coming to the surface every time you have a setback in life. If you work towards self-improvement, however, your past mistakes will slowly fade away from memory, or perhaps turn into a subject matter for self-deprecating humor.

Allow your mistakes to humble you

Life never stops presenting us with new mistakes, pain, and tragedies. They bring us back to earth. Oftentimes we create inflated fantasies about ourselves. Mistakes are a way for God to remind us of our humanity. Take the time of remorse as an opportunity to develop your humility.

Humility liberates us. It makes us happier. It raises our confidence. Humility makes it easier for us to connect with others. Real friends are not gained through achievements and triumphant moments. They are made through mutual struggles and disclosure of each other's imperfections. So use this time of remorse as an opportunity to become a better people person.

A couple of good ways to gain humility fast are either by sharing your shortcomings with others (of course choose your audience wisely), or asking the victim for forgiveness, if appropriate (there are situations where it’s better to just let the other person go).

Why are we scared to ask for forgiveness? I think most of the time it’s less about the ego and more about the fear of the other person’s reaction. What are they going to say back? What if they turn cold while you’re in your most vulnerable emotional state?

Asking for forgiveness should not be about receiving forgiveness. Don’t expect it. Asking for forgiveness is about your own happiness and liberation. Teach yourself humility. It’s amazing how life can change when you do.

Endless regret is a negative behavior that repels people

If you continue criticizing yourself for past mistakes, chances are you’re still the same old person with the same attitude and outlook on life. There is still negativity in you.

You see, negativity is an energy that finds many outlets to channel through. It can come in a form of anger, gossiping, depression, or just focusing on negative past experiences. If you catch yourself constantly ruminating about your mistakes, it’s not just your actions that need to be evaluated, it’s your whole attitude on life.  

Other people will be repelled by your chronic negative energy of guilt and regret. Negative energy is contagious. So people will avoid you just like they avoid angry and depressed people.

Instead of focusing on the past, learn to become a positive person. Find purpose in life. Create goals a move towards them. Build a positive momentum. This will help you shift the focus from negativity towards a positive mindset.

Let go of trying to control the past

When you make mistakes, many of the consequences that follow are out of your control. You can ask for forgiveness, but it’s up to the victim to forgive. You may hire a lawyer, but it’s for the jury to choose a verdict. So even if you do your best to salvage your situation, most likely things will be different from that point on. And it’s ok. That’s how the universe works.

If you continue to chronically blame yourself and live in the past, in a way you’re stubbornly resisting the consequences of your mistake. In your mind, you want to go back and make the right choice. But you can’t. What’s done is done. This wish to change the outcome and inability to turn back time make you miserable.

Instead of learning from your mistake and moving on, you continue swimming against the current. You are losing out on the blessings that are awaiting you if you just learn, humble yourself, and let go. Stop trying to control the past. It does not exist. Only in memories.

Liberation from guilt requires sacrifice

In ancient religions, in order to feel forgiven, a person had to sacrifice a lamb or some other domestic animal. Why? Because after the agricultural revolution, sheep and goats were indicators of wealth. So in order to feel forgiven, a person had to give up a part his possession. Also, not every sheep was appropriate for sacrifice. Only the ones with no blemishes were accepted.

Even in the Christian theology, which talks about unconditional forgiveness - there are requirements for liberation from guilt. A person has to devote her life to God, stop sinning, and obey God’s word.

Liberation from guilt requires giving up something you may hold dear to your heart. Perhaps it’s your pride, lifestyle, habits, time, or other things you find valuable. Any type of sacrifice allows you to become less self-centered. It cleanses you from selfishness. It will make you a better person.

You have to love yourself to forgive

Loving yourself is very different from loving another person. Loving someone is an unconditional act. You love them for who they are, with faults and imperfections. Loving yourself, however, is all about self-respect. The more you respect yourself, the greater the love you have for yourself.

If you are at fault for creating a conflict with another person, there is a good chance you lacked self-esteem at that time. Perhaps you did not even intend to hurt them, but your desire to avoid pain and defence mechanisms developed in your childhood unwillingly hurt them.

To forgive yourself, you have to start respecting yourself. To gain self-respect, you need to continually work towards improving your life. As your life improves, your self-respect will improve with it, and your self-criticism will wane down.

Final words

People love comeback stories. We love seeing someone, who seemed to have lost any chance of redemption, to rise up and transcend all expectations. These stories excite us. They make us respect those people. We want to emulate them. Be that comeback hero.

No matter how big your mistake was, there is always a chance to transform your life, and come out even better than before. However, this requires a change of mind and heart. It requires a lot of work. Allow your remorse to be the guide, not a limiting factor.

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