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The average person makes about 35,000 decisions per day. Mistakes are inevitable. And yet, when they happen, self-forgiveness doesn’t come easy. You know people make mistakes, but it’s tough to know how to forgive yourself when you make one. Especially if it has far-reaching consequences.

Maybe your mistake prevented you from reaching a goal. Maybe it meant you didn’t live up to someone’s standards. Maybe it even hurt someone you love. 

In any case, it’s far easier to make mistakes than it is to let go of them. This post is here to help. Read the tips below to learn self-forgiveness, so you can move forward with confidence.

Know Mistakes Aren’t, by Definition, “Bad”

Cambridge Dictionary defines a mistake as “an action, decision, or judgment that produces an unwanted or unintentional result.”

In life, we often experience things we don’t want or intend. Many of these things are out of our hands: stock market crashes, friends moving, telemarketers.

But when things are in our hands—in the form of a choice—we place a large burden on ourselves. The burden of achieving some form of “good.”

We can’t always carry that burden, because our actions, decisions, and judgments won’t always lead to good.

Sometimes we’ll act without considering all possible outcomes. Sometimes we’ll decide based on misinformation. Sometimes we’ll judge with biases we don’t recognize. Sometimes we won’t make choices that reflect our best selves.

woman shrugging
And—often when it’s too late—we’ll realize we’ve made a mistake: we’ve produced something we didn’t want or intend. That makes us feel like we’ve done a “bad” thing. Like we don’t know how to forgive ourselves.

But is what you did bad, just because you didn’t want or intend the result? Let’s say you truthfully tell someone you’re not in love with them. You hurt their feelings. Does your decision to tell the truth become bad, because you didn’t want or intend to hurt them?

We all know the answer. Making a mistake does not, by default, mean you did a bad thing. And it certainly does not mean you’re a bad person.

Own Your Mistake; Don’t Let It Own You

When you make a mistake, you have two choices: own it, or let it own you.

To own it, name it. Identify the mistake you made, and whether you’ve made it before.

Did you offend someone at work? Drink too much at a party? Say “yes” to too many things, overwhelming yourself in the process?

woman smiling with finger on mouth
Next, think about what may have caused you to make the mistake. Did you speak without thinking? Do you have social anxiety? Are you a self-proclaimed people pleaser?

These kinds of questions will help you generate self-awareness. By getting to the root of your mistake, you can come up with a plan to reduce the odds it’ll happen again. 

The key is to develop an internal locus of control. People with an internal locus of control believe they have control over their lives. They feel their successes and failures are tied to their thoughts and actions. 

People with an external locus of control, in contrast, believe their lives are shaped by external factors beyond their control—such as luck or circumstance.

Wield your own destiny. Don’t leave things up to chance. 

If you offended someone at work, apologize. If you’re not sure what offended them, kindly ask for their perspective. Moving forward, pay attention to the impact your words have on others. Practice thinking before you speak. 

In this way, you’ll learn from your mistakes. They’ll make you better. And you’ll feel empowered rather than defeated. That’s the key to knowing how to forgive yourself.

Remember: you aren’t your mistakes. You just make them, and that’s okay!

Lean on Your Fellow Humans While Practicing Self-Forgiveness

Chances are, someone on this planet has made your mistake before. While this isn’t cause for celebration, there’s comfort in knowing you’re not alone. 

We all make mistakes. Try as we might, we will never be perfect. We’ll make one mistake, learn from it, and then make another. We might even make the same mistake twice.

 

woman helping tape up man's running injury
But we have the opportunity and the privilege to always be growing. To recognize that recovering from mistakes only makes us stronger and wiser—and we need not beat ourselves down for them. To learn from and support each other as we strive to become the best that we can be.

Don’t be afraid to open up to others about your mistake. Choose people who want the best for you. Share your thoughts about how you’d like to improve. Ask for their support as you learn how to forgive yourself.

If someone “judges” you for your mistake, let them judge. They’re entitled to that. Their reaction may even be understandable. But they’re not in the best position to help you move forward.

This is a tough realization when judgment comes from someone we love—a parent, a spouse, a good friend. We want to feel understood, especially by those closest to us. And when we’re not, it can feel crushing. 

But remember: if someone you love judges you, that does not mean they don’t care about you. It simply means they’re processing things in their own way. And in time, they may come to a greater understanding.

Other people will always have opinions about the way you conduct yourself. Some good. Some bad. But the most important opinion is the one you have of yourself. Lean on others, but remember you can count on yourself, too. 

Your strength will help you now. And it’ll help when someone asks to lean on you, too.

Know You Will Survive Your Mistake

Have you ever made a mistake, replayed it in your mind a hundred times, and imagined all of the ways your life could go terribly wrong as a result?

(Raises hand.)

This is called catastrophizing. It’s a cognitive distortion where we assume the worst, even when nothing suggests the worst will happen. In fact, it probably won’t. 

stressed man signifying what'll happen if you don't learn how to forgive yourself

Nevertheless, we do it. We fear bad things will happen to us. We don’t want to have shame, or regret, or sadness fill our hearts. We want to be proud of our choices and have other people be proud of us.

But catastrophizing will not help us avoid pain. In fact, it guarantees it. By catastrophizing, we give in to negative thoughts, building a bad habit. We defy logic, worrying about things that haven’t happened. And we become more anxious about what might go wrong, than we might be if things did go wrong. That prevents us from learning how to forgive ourselves.

As Roman philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger said:

“There is nothing so wretched or foolish as to anticipate misfortunes. What madness it is in your expecting evil before it arrives!”

A little harsh, but it drives the point home. 

Don’t give in to bad thoughts, when you can have good ones. Even if something bad happens, you can still have good ones. By adopting a positive mindset, you can actually rewire your brain. This will help you become happier, healthier, and more resilient—regardless of the mistakes you may make along the way. 

Instead of Playing the Shame Game, Learn How to Forgive Yourself

When we make mistakes, things we didn’t want or intend happen. And while we know we can’t always have things our way, it doesn’t make things easier. 

Mistakes can lead to shame—a heavyweight as far as negative emotions go. It buries deep within us, affecting our self-esteem and our ability to move forward.

But shame is not something to be ashamed of (see the circle, here?). It’s something we can address and navigate through. We can rise above it and our mistakes. 

By making mistakes, you’re a member of the largest community in the world: humanity. Use that to your advantage!

woman smiling, signifying you can learn how to forgive yourself

Lean on others, and allow others to lean on you. Make mistakes work for, and not against, you. And embrace the fact that mistakes can even leave you better off. Soon enough, you’ll know exactly how to forgive yourself.

As Dr. Brené Brown says in her book, Rising Strong:

“To pretend that we can get to helping, generous, and brave without navigating through tough emotions like desperation, shame, and panic is a profoundly dangerous and misguided assumption. Rather than gold-plating grit and trying to make failure look fashionable, we’d be better off learning how to recognize the beauty in truth and tenacity.”