How to Let Go of Guilt and Shame.
Or, 5 steps to forgiving yourself.
In my years of working as a therapist in Burbank and Rosemead, California, I’ve worked in many different settings. I have consistently come across the reality that many people are saddled by guilt and shame, and cannot forgive themselves for past errors and mishaps. In this discussion it is important to note that guilt is something that one can ask forgiveness for – for a wrong committed. Shame is something that one is. When we feel this internally in our self appraisal it is truly important to learn to let this go before any healing can be accomplished.
Step 1. Accept yourself and your flaws.
It is important to realize that despite your flaws, you are okay as you are. Most people don’t do this though. There is an internal dialogue going on in our minds: In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy it is known as “self talk.” If we cannot accept our failures, this self talk has a tendency to denigrate us and put us down.
You are not perfect. You make mistakes. If you didn’t make mistakes you’d be the crew chief at Carl’s Jr. We can either accept, and own, our mistakes – LEARN FROM THEM, or continue to chastise and beat ourselves up over them.
Are you on a path of growth? Your mistakes and failures help you improve – IF YOU LEARN FROM THEM…. As flawed as you may be, you MUST accept yourself, flaws and all, if you are to make progress in your life. Don’t be like the lady in the life alert commercial: “I fell on my ass I can’t get up!” If you have screwed something up, stand up, dust your pants off and keep marching.
Step 2. Remember that you are not a bad person.
You can do something wrong while still being a good person. A lot of guilt or shame can make you feel like there is something wrong with you. Realize that there is a very big difference between doing a bad thing and being a bad person. Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler were bad people. Jeffrey Dahmer was a bad person. Odds are that you are NOT. You are a product of circumstances and life events that have happened to you and created patterns of behavior, programming if you will, that cause us to respond in a certain way. What we need to do is to learn to hit CTR-ALT-DEL on these and write new programs. In order to do this we have to recognize that we are not bad, evil, hopeless, or whatever loathsome adjective pops into our head.
Even when you do something that you regret, you most likely had a valid reason for doing it at the time (even if that reason doesn’t make rational sense). You didn’t do something bad because you are a fundamentally bad person; there was an intent, or valid motivation, behind your action.
Step 3. Talk to someone.
Get Another perspective. Sometimes you just need to get it off your chest. Talking to someone else about what is bothering you can have serious benefits. When you are upset at yourself, emotions can cloud your reasoning abilities. A friend will often point out a reason why you deserve to forgive yourself that you never would have seen.
Social support. You always feel better when somebody else has your back. Knowing that other people are less critical of you then you are of yourself can be encouraging. Group therapy and even support groups are excellent adjuncts to having a network of supportive friends.
Step 4. Talk to yourself (Your Witness) Yes, The Therapist just told you to talk to yourself…
I absolutely love the “Cultivating the Witness” concept taken from Ram Dass.
It can be useful to “personalize” your internal voice. Imagine that there is some other entity that is thinking your self-critical thoughts and have a conversation with them. During your “conversation”
You could ask your internal, critical voice what its positive intention is. You might get an answer. This voice is saying what it’s saying for a reason – most likely to protect you, to prevent you from making the same mistake again, or to help you improve in some way. I have had some clients that have done this successfully However, not everyone can.
When you realize that your thoughts of guilt or shame are intended for your benefit, it becomes easier to forgive yourself. You can find another way to satisfy that positive intent while reducing your guilty feelings.
Step 5. What would you say to your best friend in a similar situation?
Imagine your best friend had done exactly what you did and then came to you for advice. What would you tell them? You would probably reassure them and tell them not to be so hard on themselves. You would tell them that everyone makes mistakes. You would tell them that they deserve to be forgiven.
For some reason I have found that people frequently CANNOT take their own advice. They can sit in the fray and tell everyone else what to do but they can’t tell the person in the mirror. Is this what you do?
Forgiving yourself is far more challenging than forgiving someone else because we have negative programs running inside of us, most likely from childhood. The sum total of interactions, events and circumstances has produced learned responses and a running dialogue in our heads.
Additionally, you must live with yourself and your thoughts 24/7. In some sense it never shuts off. However, despite the challenge, if we are to be emotionally healthy people, we must have the capacity to forgive ourselves when we have made a mistake.
When you forgive yourself, you are not pretending as though it never happened. On the contrary, you are acknowledging that your actions have consequences. But the consequences don’t have to include self-inflicted negative feelings. If you don’t forgive yourself, it’s like picking at an open wound; you are only making a bad situation worse. The wound is already there. It can heal but only if you stop picking at it.
If you forgive yourself when you make a mistake, it’s easier to address the consequences of your action in a productive way.