I have always been very strict with myself, making self-compassion and self-forgiveness a very difficult skill to develop and maintain. If I ruminate about something that didn’t work out or that worked out but was not perfect, I always end up being the first one to take the blame. I tell myself that I should have known better. I punish myself for not being a fortune teller. Does that sound familiar?
We live in a society with great pressure to do things “correctly”. We are under constant surveillance, at work and in our personal lives, and thus feel the need to avoid making mistakes. Mistakes, regardless of how small they are, could be fatal to our reputation, friendships, relationships, work.
As a result, we all develop ways of protecting ourselves: seeking perfection, overworking, staying small, falling into depression, etc. What is worse, we often believe that those protecting mechanisms are serving us well. I believed that being strict served me well as I would perform better and thus would not have to deal with the negative outcomes of anything I put my hands on. However, as I am sure you are all well-aware, humans learn through not being right, but through making mistakes.
The negative self-talk and strictness take a toll on our mental well-being. Self- forgiveness is a way to take a look at what didn’t work out, letting go of anger, and learning. How does this work? Let’s take a look at it close-up.
Imagine you just had a fight with your friend because he arrived half an hour late. You said some unkind words to him that you didn’t mean and now you blame yourself for being so sensitive, overreactive, etc. (add the emotion that YOU would feel in a similar situation).
The first step in self-forgiveness is to let go of anger, bitterness, and other negative emotions. You may want to take a deep breath and perhaps grab something nice for breakfast while you are waiting for him. If you feel that you cannot meet your friend without resentment, write him a message and leave. Take a walk, focus on something nice, put some music on and start singing… The goal is to ease the negativity.
The second step is to reflect. Do not try to excuse your friend or rationalize the lateness (especially if they did not excuse themselves with a valid reason). Instead, try to answer those questions in your head:
Is lateness something cultural and generally accepted?
What exact feelings came up? Was it just anger or also pain, hurt, loneliness, abandonment, etc.?
What is it about the lateness of your friend that made you feel that way?
What is your role in your friend’s lateness? Did you make your boundaries clear?
How did the emotions you felt serve to protect you?
If you still feel ashamed for having those emotions arise in you, allow yourself a minute to work through them. You may want to write about how you feel. Or meditate. Or do EFT tapping – I don’t have experience with it myself, but all of my friends who use it claim it is the magical way of dealing with negative emotions. In other words, try various methods that let you enter into the state of calmness. It is important to not react emotionally as you need to take responsibility for what you did without ruminating: “Yes, I did wrong and I accept my role in this conflict.” Once you do so, you are able to complete the last step in the process of self-forgiveness.
The last step is to learn from the situation. You can reflect about your boundaries, about your basic needs, about other things that contributed to the situation. Were you under stress? Were you hungry? Were you tired? Could it be that it was those conditions rather than your friend’s lateness that made your emotions uncontrollable?
This example was based on reacting to a situation, however it can be anything. It can be guilt from not fulfilling a goal. It can be anger at yourself for overspending on things you don’t need. It can be disappointment because you could not find a new job. Depending on the situation, it is also essential to note that this isn’t a process that takes a few minutes. It could take anywhere between one day and 5 years or more to complete. This depends completely on you.
And remember: If you are beating yourself down for too long about something you did and cannot let it go, regardless of the methods you try, it is important to reach out to a professional as there might be much deeper underlying issues.
About the Author: Nikoleta Michalova
Hanging out with friends, traveling, hiking in the mountains, pilates, dance, reading, writing, event and travel planning are some of Nikoleta's favorite things. She is currently in between three cities; Bratislava that she loves and considers home, Vienna that shaped her late childhood and early adulthood, and Madrid where she moved to pursue studies of International Hospitality and Tourism Management.
Being the active person she is, she is engaged with several projects and organizations all aligned with her inner beliefs and passions. Two of the most noteworthy are being a project leader at Education Nepal and her own initiative Sustainable Bratislava.