Psychologist therapist: Forgiving someone for toxic behaviour isn’t easy, especially when that someone is you. We’re often a lot harder on ourselves than we are on others and this makes it hard to forgive ourselves for past wrongs. Thankfully, self-forgiveness is a skill that can be practiced and improved. We’ve put together a psychology-backed guide to forgiving yourself for being toxic, making amends, and moving on with your life. Read on to begin your journey toward self-forgiveness.
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It’s easier to move forward when you let go of experiences holding you back. You can’t change what you did—you can only retain what you learned and move on. Remember that you can only do what you think is right in the moment and that if you knew how much damage you’d cause or guilt you’d feel, you wouldn’t have done it. It’s empowering to know you have the choice to feel pain forever or move on from it for good.
- Focus on living in the moment. When bad memories creep in, tell yourself, “It’s OK that that happened, but now I’m focusing on my happiness.”
- You may need to make this decision more than once if your guilt creeps back in. Keep choosing to move forward and treat yourself with kindness.
Getting rid of negative feelings makes forgiveness possible. Negative emotions (like guilt or anger) and limiting beliefs (“I’m a horrible person”) are registered in your nervous system—you’re wired to keep beating yourself up about what happened. Identify the exact feelings and thoughts holding you back and let them go. Try things like:
- Expressing the pain or guilt you feel about what you did by journaling or venting to a friend.
- Writing a “spew letter” (a letter to yourself detailing all of your negative thoughts about your toxic behavior). Read it out loud to yourself, sit with it for a while, and then throw it out.
- Moving or exercising your body in a way that feels good to clear your mind—try yoga, dancing, cardio, or anything that brings you joy.
Guilt is an important human emotion just like happiness or anger. Feeling guilty means you’re able to be empathetic and understand how your behaviour impacts others. Accept your guilt without judging yourself for it. When you let it flow naturally, it will likely pass in a few hours or days.
- It’s important to feel your guilt in order to let it go. If you try to avoid or suppress it, it will only linger and fester longer.
- Try not to dwell on your guilt. An endless loop of negative emotions like guilt is linked to decreased emotional health and psychological well-being.
Recognizing what you’ve done is the first step to self-forgiveness. Be very specific about what you want to forgive and admit that you did something wrong (blaming someone else for your actions prevents self-forgiveness). If you have multiple incidents or a long history of toxic behaviour, pick one behaviour (like gaslighting) or one incident (“the time I spread a rumour about Greg”) to start with.
- It’s not fun to ruminate on instances of your toxic behaviour. If you’re overwhelmed, remember that you’re human and your circumstances at the time caused you to lash out.
- It can feel embarrassing or vulnerable to admit to mistakes, but remember that they’re part of learning and growing.
A sincere apology confronts the situation directly. Many times, asking for forgiveness leads to resolution for both you and the person you’ve hurt. It’s uncomfortable to fess up to your actions, but your willingness to come forward and make amends will help you forgive yourself for whatever happened.
- Explain yourself and your actions without getting defensive and tell the person you’re genuinely sorry. End by asking them to forgive you.
- Give the other person a chance to respond and communicate their feelings without interrupting or trying to correct them.
- Remember, the other person does not have to accept your apology. You can’t control how they feel or react to you, but you can feel proud that you did the right thing and apologized.
If there’s anything you can do to make up for what you’ve done, do it. Atonement—a reparation for an offense or injury—helps you forgive yourself and shows the people you’ve hurt that you’re genuinely sorry. This is infinitely better than isolating and punishing yourself (that doesn’t help you or anybody else). Put your regret into action and do things to minimize or erase the damage you’ve done to your relationships or reputation:
- For example, if you spread rumours about someone, you might atone by reaching out to the people you gossiped to and telling them you weren’t being honest.
- If you can’t do something to help the person you hurt, try doing something for someone else in need. Helping others in any way helps you find peace and repair your self-esteem.
If someone else were in your position, would you forgive them? Most likely! People tend to be harder on themselves than they are on others. Treat yourself the same way you would treat someone you care about (including forgiving yourself) and remind yourself you’re doing the best you can. Practice self-compassion by:
- Journaling about your feelings, mistakes, and challenges.
- Practicing self-care and doing things that make you feel happy and rejuvenated.
- Giving yourself positive self-talk when you’re feeling negative emotions.
Your mistakes tell you what to do—and not to do—in the future. If you regret your toxic behaviour, try to use your experience to gain wisdom and awareness to avoid acting similarly in the future. Instead of avoiding your mistakes and living in shame, try these strategies to make the most of them:
- Practice mindfulness to feel and process your emotions in real time. Having self-awareness can guide you toward productive behaviour and reactions.
- Ask yourself, “What would I do differently? What advice would I give someone in this situation? What habits should I explore to act differently next time?”
- Recognize that some things are in your power to change, and some are not.
Deciding you want to be a better person is the first step to becoming one. Oftentimes, change can feel really overwhelming and the toughest decision that anyone ever makes is the decision to invest and commit to themselves. It takes a lot to make that kind of commitment because it means you have to recognize that there are some things about you that need to change in order to be the best version of yourself.
- Perform a self-inventory to assess what needs to change. Challenge the narratives, perspectives, and thoughts of yourself and your life that you’ve been harbouring.
- Practice dream liberation. Ask yourself, “What would liberate me from feeling stagnant and what does that dream look like for me in the future?”
Wanting to change is just an idea until you put it into action. If you forgive yourself but never make adjustments to prevent your toxic behaviour from surfacing again, you won’t feel satisfied. By changing your behaviour, you’re showing yourself and others that you feel genuine regret and want to be better.
- List specific ways to make your wants a reality, like reciting positive affirmations every day, practicing new anger management techniques, or exploring new stress coping mechanisms.
- Check in with the people you value the most to make sure you’re showing up for them as the best version of yourself.
- You’ll have good days and bad days as you work on yourself. Instead of shaming yourself when you mess up, acknowledge where you fell short and set an intention to keep changing.
A mental health professional can help you forgive yourself and move on. If your feelings of guilt and shame over your behaviour are overwhelming and you can’t make yourself feel better with your current support systems (like friends, family, or self-care), a therapist or counsellor can offer guidance. It reflects well on you to admit you need help than to pretend you’ve got it all together. Consider a therapist when:
- Your feelings interfere with your work or relationships.
- Your mental health affects your physical health.
- You turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms like overeating or substance abuse.
If you need immediate relief from guilt or shame, give yourself a boost with physical self-care. A shower or bath when you feel guilty is linked to alleviating negative feelings short-term, and spending time on yourself gives you space to gain perspective on your situation.
Think about the other person or people’s perspective. It’s easy to imagine they’re just as fixated on your toxic behaviour as you are, but this isn’t always the case. Remind yourself that the other person might not be affected as severely as you.
Remember, guilt is not the same as shame. Guilt lets you know you’ve done something wrong and helps you atone for it. Shame makes you feel bad about who you are. Keep your guilt to help you make amends, but ditch the shame.