How to Forgive Yourself

Jan 09, 2023

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Forgiveness. Without it, we can spiral into bitterness… even against ourselves. And when we cannot forgive ourselves, we can begin to identify with our mistakes. Rather than seeing something we did (or didn’t do) as being separate from who we are, we assign meaning that isn’t necessarily truth.

But what if we could step back and assess ourselves and our decisions in a new light? What if we can release the guilt, shame and regret of past mistakes? I have some thoughts and ideas, ones I’ve successfully used myself, to help you do just that. I hope they encourage you and help you learn how to forgive yourself. And, by extension of forgiving yourself, help you to also forgive others.

“Part of self-forgiveness is this idea: Can you accept that you did the best you could at the time? And that now that you know better, you can try to do better?”  – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn

  • Seeing goodness and best efforts
  • Not assigning meaning
  • Disconnecting from identity
  • Honestly assessing
  • Know better, do better
  • Asking for forgiveness

Contact Info and Recommended Resources

Podcast Episodes that pair well with this one:

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I'm Dr. Sarah Dill, and this is the Stressless Physician Podcast, episode number 48.

Welcome to the Stress Less Physician Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Sara Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.

Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the podcast. How are you? I am doing great. I'm actually recording this in December, but on the day that this podcast episode will be released, I should hopefully, if all goes as planned, be on vacation in Costa Rica. Which is a country I have yet to visit, and I am very excited. I've yet to meet anyone who has anything negative or at all critical to say about Costa Rica. So I should be having an amazing time.

Today I wanted to talk to you about forgiving ourselves and basically how to forgive yourself quickly and effectively and relatively easily. And this is something I've been talking a lot about. It's sort of funny. It's become a little bit of a joke with me and my boyfriend. I don't know that he loves it, but I love it. And it actually came up, I was at a conference, a dermatology conference here locally in Santa Barbara, or actually here in a charming little town called Ojai. And I was out to dinner and someone was being a little bit hard on themselves, and I was a little joking about this, but I was sharing how, I just like to say I forgive myself a lot, all the time, and then I actually do like to forgive myself and move on.

And I was thinking about it more. We turned it into a little bit of a joke and a secret little inside joke, but this is really something that I have been embracing and sharing with others, and this is something I realize I've actually been working on for a long time, and it's one of those things that I feel like now that I look back on it, I can see that I've been pretty successful.

I feel like I spent years beating myself up and revisiting and carrying this heavy backpack of guilt and shame and regret for mistakes I had made or things I had said and done or not said or not done in my childhood, in my teenage years, young adulthood, up until the present moment really.

And I've certainly made a lot of mistakes and I have a hundred percent done a lot of things that I am not proud of, and I think that makes me human. I think that is part of the human condition. I think it's normal, and I really do believe that we can use our past experiences, whether they're in the distant past or whether they just happened five minutes ago, to learn and grow and become a better version of ourselves.

I actually wrote down that we can become better than our past selves, but again, it's not about becoming a better person necessarily in terms of our innate self-worth, but we can become more the person that we want to be. We can show up more and more as our best selves and grow into an even better version of that human self.

And I just wanna say before we move on, that in this sense, forgiveness does not mean or require that we approve or like what we did or what we said. It means that we forgive ourselves. We allow ourselves to acknowledge maybe what we did, and to move past the regret or the guilt or the shame or whatever it is, and not continue to carry it with us.

So a lot of my own self-work, and I think a lot of the work that many of us do, has really been on forgiving myself and forgiving others. And the more I get better at forgiving myself, the better I am at forgiving other people. And part of this work is also working on, or really starting to see the fundamental goodness in myself and other people, even when we say and do things we don't approve of or that may cause actual harm or hurt to ourselves or to other people.

And the most fundamental belief, when I think about it, that I've really had to adopt and that has allowed me to do this work effectively, genuinely, the belief that underpins all of it is this idea that each of us is always doing our best, and yet sometimes, or maybe even often, our best isn't always that great. Our best isn't what we would like it to be. But I love this idea that everyone is doing the best that they can with the resources they have in that moment. And adopting this belief very much changed my relationship to myself and to others in a very radical, fundamental way, and in a very good way, in a very gentle, accepting, loving way.

So the technique I wanna share with you is very straightforward. It's actually very quick, and then I'll talk a little bit about what to do if it seems too easy. Too easy, or too quick. So what often happens, is you will catch yourself saying something or doing something that you don't like. Maybe it's not as kind as you would like to be. Maybe it's insincere. Maybe it's you saying or doing something, but there's some internal reaction. It's like an internal wince or like an internal "Uh uh, I hate that". Or you feel this sort of very quick feeling of shame or guilt. That's often a sign that you've just done something that you might need to forgive yourself.

So as soon as you feel this, as soon as you feel that little wince or regret something that you've said or done, can you apologize if there's another person involved - or you can apologize to yourself if it's against yourself - and can you make any amends as soon as possible? So can you do it as quickly as you can, quickly and fully.

You apologize, take ownership, and maybe you make some amends if you're able to. And then equally quickly and equally fully, can you just deep dive into forgiving yourself? I say, "I forgive me. I forgive myself". I say it out loud, "I forgive me". And then I want you just to really picture just falling into that forgiveness, maybe falling through it, however you visualize it.

I take a quick deep breath when I do this. "I forgive me." And then just move into the next moment or moments of your life freely and fully. Beginning again like I talked about in the last podcast. The next moment is empty and full of promise. Can you go in, having forgiven yourself fully and completely?

So that's it. That's the step. Catch yourself when you've said or done something that you perhaps feel the need to apologize for. We have our own internal sense of justice and behavior. For me, it's this internal sort of ouch or wince or uug. Or when you feel a quick little flash of guilt, soon as you feel that, can you apologize? Are there amends to be made? And then immediately, quickly, and fully, can you forgive yourself? I forgive myself. I forgive me. Deep breath and move into the next moment, free and full, beginning again.

So what's very common is that then people tell me, "Well, it's really hard. I just can't forgive myself." So just check in with yourself, maybe try it out and notice, do you feel like you've been able just to forgive, release, and move on? And if you can't forgive yourself, or if there are things in your life very common that you still feel pain or shame or guilt around when you reflect on them, let's explore what happened.

What did you do or say, or not do or not say? You could write it down. What are the facts of the situation? And then notice why is it a problem? What are the secondary layers from which maybe you're feeling shame or guilt about it. Are you making this event, are you making your actions mean something? Not just about doing something wrong, but being wrong? Are you making this mean there's something wrong with you?

That's often a common thing that makes us feel more intensely shameful or guilty about something, and that may make it more difficult for you to forgive yourself. Is it possible? Can you see that there's a difference between your identity from what you said or did? Can you disconnect your identity from your behavior? Can you remind yourself that this is a thing that happened, not who I am. You can make sure you aren't falling into the trap of making things personal and sometimes pervasive.

Where we expand it, if we did something wrong in this one area, are we making ourselves a bad person? Does this mean that every aspect about ourselves is somehow flawed? Can you see and really believe that you are a good person who sometimes does or says things that are not how you want to show up, that are wrong, or mistakes or that you wish you had said and done differently?

I would say write down everything that makes you feel guilty or that creates a sense of shame or that prevents you from forgiving yourself. Just write it all down on paper. You don't have to show it to anyone. You can keep it private. You can shred it or burn it afterwards. And then I just want you to notice how those thoughts on that piece of paper are why you can't forgive yourself.

And that's the work to do. That's the work to look at, to start to disbelieve those sentences in your head, to disprove maybe those sentences that you wrote down. And in the end, like I said, when I started, I do truly believe that I am always doing my best and I have always been doing my best in the past.

And sometimes my best is not good. Sometimes it's really bad, and I believe the same thing about other people. Sometimes our best really sucks, honestly. But when I go back and replay or relive that situation in my head, like sports time, you go back and you do slow motion analysis or you do Byron Katie's "the work" on it, or you come up with bridge thoughts.

But when I go back and replay that situation, and especially when I reflect on what I was thinking and feeling and believing at the time, and I notice what resources I had, including psychological resources, emotional resources, physical, mental, financial resources, I realize I could not actually have done it better or differently and I can try to do better in the future.

Part of self-forgiveness is this idea. Can you accept that you did the best you could at the time, and that now that you know better, you can try to do better? I remind myself of that. I accept that I did the best that I could at the time. I don't love it, not necessarily proud of it. And now that I have the benefit of hindsight right now that I know better, I'm going to try to do better.

The other thing, if you're really struggling to forgive yourself, chances are there was probably someone else involved. Sometimes we just have to forgive ourselves for hurting or harming ourselves in some way, or for not showing up for ourselves the way we want to. But often there is someone else or other people involved, and part of forgiving yourself again is letting the other person or people know that you're sorry that you were in the wrong.

Can you make a sincere apology, and again, make amends or repairs? Is there something you can do to make up for whatever it is you're apologizing for and forgiving yourself for to them or in general? And if you're struggling to forgive yourself, you can just check in. Did I apologize? Did I take responsibility and own my actions? Did I make amends, if possible, that were appropriate and authentic by my own standards? Or by the standards of other reasonable people.

Make sure you weren't holding yourself to some sort of perfection standard. You can check in and see, and then can you do it as soon as you can, apologize, make repairs or amends if you're able to quickly and fully. And then, again, practice that deep dive into forgiving yourself. For me, it almost feels like jumping into a pool of warm water quickly and fully. "I forgive me. I forgive myself."

And one caveat too, you can't make your own self-forgiveness dependent on requiring those other people to forgive you. They may or may not grant you forgiveness. You don't get to decide what forgiveness looks like or when you get it or what other people think and feel about you. The other person or persons may not forgive you, and that's okay. What they do doesn't have to stop you from forgiving yourself.

Just like you are entitled to your feelings, they're entitled to their feelings. Only you can forgive yourself. It's not something you can earn from other people or be granted from other people. Other people can forgive you and you might notice you still haven't forgiven yourself. This is an internal job, and the more easily and quickly you can learn to forgive yourself, to grant yourself complete self-forgiveness, the more easily and quickly you will forgive other people too. At least that's been my experience.

When I was prepping for this, I was just looking up some articles on self-forgiveness and all of that, and there is some interesting research which has shown that people who practice self-forgiveness have better mental and emotional wellbeing. They feel less stressed, they have more positive attitudes, and they tend to have healthier relationships, and it feels better. And learning how to forgive ourselves and forgive other people, frees us up to create fulfilling, meaningful, and happy lives and relationships.

I will definitely do a podcast episode later on forgiving other people because I think it can be a little bit different. But again, if you really examine and evaluate whether you believe that we are all doing our best, even though sometimes our best isn't that great, and you extrapolate that to yourself and to other people, you can see how that would have a ripple effect of being able to forgive others and forgive yourself more easily.

So I would just invite you to give this a try. I would love to start a trend where we apologize quickly and fully. We make amends, if necessary and if possible, and then we just deep dive into forgiving ourselves fully and completely. "I forgive me. I forgive myself." I invite you to give it a try. Let me know what you think. Can't wait to talk to you next week. Bye.

If you are a busy practicing physician, ready to start feeling less stressed, enjoy work more and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life, sign up for a consult call with me at It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.

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