We have a natural tendency to blame ourselves when something goes wrong in our lives. This is because we have evolved to experience emotions like shame and regret, especially when we behave in a ways that violate the expectations of ourselves and others.
For example, say as a child you get into a fight with one of your younger siblings. You both want to play a video game, but it’s single-player, so you are both arguing over when it’s your turn to get to play.
Your sibling refuses to give up the game, so you get angry and you punch them really hard in the stomach. They get the wind knocked out of them, fall to the floor, and start crying.
Most of the time, you’re going to feel a little bad and regret that decision. That’s because you acted in a way that disappointed yourself. You got caught in the heat of the moment, you acted impulsively, and that ended up hurting someone you really care about.
We all experience shame and regret from time-to-time. And while these emotions can be uncomfortable, many psychologists believe they serve a useful function in our lives.
These negative emotions can trigger us to reflect on our actions, learn from them, and use this knowledge the next time we are in a similar situation. In this way, our emotions are a kind of “signal” that guides us on how we should behave (or not behave) in the future.
However, sometimes we cling to these emotions and we never learn from them or forgive ourselves. Instead, we carry these emotions around with us and we beat ourselves up over them constantly.
I believe that no matter what we did in the past, we have the capacity to completely forgive ourselves. Here are the most important things we need to do to achieve self-forgiveness:
Accept that everyone makes mistakes
The first step to forgive yourself is to accept that everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect, and even the smartest individuals will occasionally make errors in judgement.
Therefore, experiencing shame and embarrassment doesn’t mean that you are inferior to anyone – it just means you are a human being.
These emotions are not only natural, but an often necessary part of life, so being able to forgive yourself doesn’t mean that you never experience shame or guilt anymore.
Instead, it means that you accept these emotions when they happen – but at the same time you don’t attach to them or center your whole life around them. They are only one part of a much bigger whole.
Don’t underestimate situational factors
We like to believe that we have complete free will over all of our choices, but psychology research shows us that situational factors can sometimes overpower our judgement.
In the popular Milgram experiment, individuals were instructed to send a “lethal shock” to a participant in another room (who didn’t really exist). The study found that 65% of individuals gave in to this peer pressure, merely because they were told to do so by an authority figure in a lab coat, who insisted that the “experiment must go on.”
Milgram used this study to help explain the “obedience of authority” that was rampant among Nazis during the Holocaust. It is surprising the things people do when they are ordered by someone who is a perceived authority, but this is an influence we are all susceptible to.
Another study that illustrates the power of situational factors is the Stanford prison experiment. In this study, participants were randomly assigned to play the role of “prisoner” or “guard” in a fake prison setting. As it turned out, the situational factors were so strong that participants actually began to act as if they were really prisoners and guards. Many of the “guards” enforced authoritarian measures and subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture (even though, somewhere in their minds, they knew this wasn’t a real prison).
These situations don’t necessarily excuse bad behavior, but they do help explain these behaviors and put them into context. In that way, we can at least understand why we may occasionally give in to these negative influences and do bad things when we don’t really want to.
You are not in control of everything
Sometimes bad things happen that we have little to no control over. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop us from blaming ourselves and beating ourselves up over these events.
It could be that we are just in the wrong place at the wrong time, or we engage in “magical thinking” that leads us to believe we caused an event that we really didn’t.
People sometimes take too much responsibility for what happens to others. Like a child that blames themselves for their parent’s divorce, or when someone dies and we think we “should’ve been there” even though we had no way of knowing.
Our minds are designed to build causal associations between ourselves and the events in our lives, but it is also highly prone to error.
We think that our favorite sports team lost because we were at the game or watched it on TV, but if we really ask ourselves we know that these couldn’t have possibly influenced the outcome in a realistic way.
The truth is we don’t control everything and we can’t possibly know everything. Understanding these personal limitations plays a big role in not putting unnecessary blame on ourselves for events which we have no influence over.
Take something positive from every experience
I firmly believe that you can take something positive away from every experience you’ve ever had. Even when you make a mistake or embarrass yourself, you can use that experience as a “learning tool” to help make you a smarter and better person in the future.
As mentioned before, negative emotions can serve a valuable function in influencing our behavior. Shame and regret teach us not do certain behaviors that may hurt ourselves or others. Often we can not fully forgive ourselves until we’ve digested these emotions and learned what we need to from them.
On the contrary, if we don’t learn from these emotions, we are more likely to repeat the negative and destructive behaviors from which they stem. Sometimes we need to make a mistake several times before we fully “learn our lesson” and can move on.
Once we do learn the lesson behind our emotions, however, then it’s like a weight is being lifted off of our shoulder. We no longer need to cling to our shame and regret, but we feel glad that it happened and we feel like a better person at the end of the day.
Make a habit of forgiving others
We are all susceptible to the same flaws and imperfections. Therefore we should exercise forgiveness not only toward ourselves, but also our family, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even enemies.
Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we have to continue a relationship with someone who has hurt us or disappointed us. Instead it means that we sympathize with that person’s wrong-doing, and we hope that they eventually correct themselves and find their way.
When we practice forgiveness toward others, we make it into a habit, and it becomes easier to forgive ourselves when we discover our own self in a similar situation.
Often times we are a lot more similar to other people than we think. And once we recognize our commonalities as human beings, we become kinder and gentler in our judgments toward everyone.
Learn tools to improve your daily connections in A Roadmap to Relationships.