Let’s Talk About… Self Forgiveness

By Jeremy Godwin

Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.

This is Episode 80 and this week I’m talking about self forgiveness. In this episode I’ll cover what self forgiveness is, why it matters, and how to forgive yourself. So, let’s talk about mental health!

Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.

Find links to other available podcasting services here.

Watch Episode 18 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m looking at five things you can do to feel happier today.

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This podcast episode was originally released on 23 May, 2021.

Hello and welcome to Episode 80, and thanks so much for joining me!

This week is all about self forgiveness. As I mentioned last week, I looked at the topic of forgiveness in Episode 44 however the main focus of that episode was about working through forgiving others. For many of us, we can spend years carrying around hurt, pain and anger towards ourselves over things that we did or did not do in the past, and while being able to reflect on the past objectively so that we can learn from it is a massive part of good mental health, you’ll notice that I said ‘objectively’ — guilt does not tend to be objective, mainly because it usually involves clinging onto negative past emotions rather than learning how to let go and forgive yourself in order to move forward. So, that’s what I’m exploring this week.

Two quick updates before we dive into that discussion. I have new episodes out now on my two YouTube channels. On Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV I’m looking at five things you can do to feel happier today, and on No-Nonsense Advice for Living I’m looking at what I learned about life (and myself) by moving from the city to the country. You can find them both on YouTube or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au to watch them now (you’ll also find the links in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).

The other update is that I now have only one coaching slot left if you’re interested in working together on a one-on-one basis. My approach is a combination of counselling and coaching, and so if you’re interested in having a regular session with me that’s like one of these podcasts tailored to your specific circumstances, then head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/coaching for information and to register your interest. I’ll shortly be closing this off for a few months so if you’re interested, get in quickly as I only work with a small handful of clients at a time.

So, with all of that covered, on with this week’s episode about self forgiveness… 

Introduction

Back in 2020, one of my top three favourite songs that was meant to compete in the-Eurovision-that-never-was was a little number from Belgium called Release Me by Hooverphonic, who had some big hits back in the 90’s and early 2000’s (and if you’re able to remember them when they first came out, well… congratulations, you’re officially old! Like me!).

So I want to take a moment to quote a few of the opening lines of Release Me. Here goes:

Release me
Don't talk, go away
Release me
It's not right to make me stay
All the lies and all the pain
Only you can make them go away
Yeah, release me from this sad and losing game

So why am I sharing that? Well… even though the song seems to be about a romantic relationship gone sour, there are a lot of parallels between the lyrics and the kind of negative headspace that it’s easy to get caught up in when you’re carrying around feelings of guilt over things that you have or haven’t done in the past. Guilt is, without question, a sad and losing game, mainly because it robs you of any kind of joy in the present moment… and then the other bit from those lyrics that’s relevant (or at least relevant to me!) is the piece with, “all the lies and all the pain, only you can make them go away”. Self Forgiveness is exactly what it says on the label: forgiveness of yourself. And we can often be our own harshest critics and worst enemies rolled into one, especially when we’re dealing with guilt, but the fact of the matter is that only you can make all of that go away… and this week I’ll be talking about how to start doing that. First, let’s discuss some definitions…

What is self forgiveness?

‘Forgiveness’ is about being able to let go of feelings of anger or resentment towards, in this case, yourself. Like I said before, I talked about forgiving others in Episode 44 (so you’ll find that helpful if that’s relevant to you as well), however the focus here is on how you feel towards yourself; self forgiveness is, to paraphrase the Oxford Dictionary, part of no longer feeling angry about something you did or did not do in the past and, more importantly, no longer wanting to punish yourself. This stuff goes hand-in-hand with guilt, that shitty emotion that likes to heap self-judgement and shame on us about mistakes we’ve made or self-perceived flaws we might have. I mention ‘shame’ there and it’s a subject I explored in its own episode back in Episode 71, so well worth checking out if you haven’t already, and I covered ‘mistakes’ all the way back in Episode 2 in the early, early days of this podcast because it’s such a fundamental aspect of understanding mental health, so check that out as well (you can find audio and transcripts for all past episodes at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au). Guilt, anger and shame can be overwhelming and hard to process, but staying stuck in them prevents us from learning important lessons so that we can move forward in a healthy way.

When we make mistakes, often we can find ourselves going over and over them in our mind and many of us often keep on punishing ourselves long after the deed or whatever has been forgotten by everyone else. Why? Usually it’s because we find ourselves stuck in rumination, where we go over and over something without being able to progress beyond that into healthy emotional processing. Let me share this quote from VeryWell Mind:

“…rumination involves negative thought patterns that are immersive or repetitive. Many people slip into rumination when they are trying to process their emotions, but they become “stuck” in negative patterns of replaying past hurts without moving toward solutions or feelings of resolution… rumination doesn’t generate new ways of thinking, new behaviors, or new possibilities… [but instead causes you to go] over the same information repeatedly without change, and [stay] in a negative mindset.”

Source: https://www.verywellmind.com/repetitive-thoughts-emotional-processing-or-rumination-3144936

And the link for that is in the transcript , and I’d recommend that article if you’re prone to rumination (as well as Episode 4 of this podcast where I talked about over-thinking). 

So what does all that have to do with self forgiveness? Well, ruminating over things we’ve done in the past (or wish we had done differently) is something that keeps us stuck in negativity rather than helping us to learn from our mistakes so that we can move forward in a healthy way — when you go over and over things and beat yourself up repeatedly, you’re reinforcing the guilt and shame, which leads to more guilt and more shame and… well, hopefully you get my point. Self forgiveness is the circuit-breaker to all of that; it’s a means of being able to step back and look at the mistake objectively and to realise that a mistake does not define who you are as a person. 

Now before we go any further, let’s talk for a moment about what self forgiveness is not. It’s not about just forgetting what has happened nor is it about letting yourself off the hook, especially for things that have had a major impact on your life and the lives of others. It’s not about completely absolving yourself of any responsibility for your actions or distorting the facts so as to make yourself seem like the victim or the hero (depending on the situation). If you do those things then you will not learn from your mistakes and so you will likely repeat them or cause more harm in the future — and what do I say every week without fail? Do no harm (as well as be kind and give more than you take)!

So that leads me to the next part of the episode…

Why does self forgiveness matter?

Well it matters because holding on to guilt has a negative impact on both your mental and your physical health, as well as your social and emotional wellbeing. Let me explain by quoting from an article on Prevention.com:

“Anyone who’s wallowing in guilt is going to be more withdrawn, more critical, and less open than they normally would. So whoever’s around — your spouse, your children… your friends [etc.] — … is going to suffer right along with you. But [it] doesn’t stop [there]. [Your] mind affects [your] body in a zillion interconnecting ways, and those guilty feelings you’re nurturing are generating chemicals that are headed straight for your vital organs. They increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, disrupt your digestion, tense your muscles, dump cholesterol into your bloodstream, and reduce your ability to think straight. And every time you remember what you did and [cringe], those bad feelings give you a fresh hit of [those] corrosive chemicals… studies on forgiveness have led scientists to suspect that those who have difficulty forgiving are more likely to experience heart attacks, high blood pressure, depression, and other [health issues].”

Source: https://www.prevention.com/life/g20512857/how-to-forgive-yourself-no-matter-what/ 

Being able to forgive yourself matters because it enables you to face what you did or didn’t do in the past, accept it, take responsibility and move forward in a way that includes learning the lessons you need to learn so that you don’t repeat the same mistakes over and over again. I’ve been saying for many, many years now that the only true mistake is the one that you don’t learn from, and what I mean by that is that if we fail to learn from the times we mess up in life (and we will, inevitably, mess up — because nobody is perfect) then we’re doomed to repeat them. 

So how do you do that? How do you forgive yourself? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…

How to forgive yourself

See guilt as a positive — guilt means you care (some people do horrendous things and seem to experience no guilt whatsoever; some politicians even try to turn their shitty actions into even more political gain)… so the very fact that you feel guilt, shame, remorse or whatever over your actions is a positive sign that you’re a decent human being! Guilt lets you know when something you did or said does not fit with your core values and beliefs. Shame, on the other hand, is not particularly positive because it’s tied up in humiliation and embarrassment, so dealing with it involves being able to look at the bigger picture (which I’ll come back to shortly). First, though, let’s discuss my next point which is…

Acknowledge what you’re feeling — part of the shittiness of guilt is that it can be really hard to confront what we’re actually feeling guilt about, and so we can find ourselves being pulled down into a spiral that isn’t particularly constructive. I went through this last year when my cat died; I know I talk about losing Pushka a lot on here and that’s because it had such an overwhelming effect on me and I became bogged down by guilt and shame, and then we adopted another cat (Igor) and I found myself feeling guilty about that, and while all that was going on here I was showing up week after week to talk to you lovely people about better mental health, while I was struggling with my own, and so I began to feel guilty about feeling guilty, which is almost enough to make your head explode! And actually mine nearly did; in an interview earlier this year, I was talking about Pushka’s death and I just completely broke down (and thankfully the interviewer was lovely about it; in fact we’ve stayed in touch since then so hi Erica!)… anyway at that point I had been living with the guilt for so long that it took the slightest thing to tip me over the edge, and in fact that was the catalyst to get me to go back to therapy which I now do weekly. And guess what one of the first things was that my therapist picked up about me? That I’m carrying around a lot of guilt. Surprise! The point here is that this stuff can affect any of us, and just because you know intellectually that you don’t have anything to feel guilty about, that doesn’t mean that our minds always behave in rational ways. So start by acknowledging what it is that you’re feeling because recognising it helps you to label it and become more self-aware (something I covered in Episode 62). Next…

Consider your accountability — once you’ve acknowledged what you’re feeling it’s now up to you to objectively consider your responsibility in whatever did or did not happen. This is not about assigning blame, because that’s a waste of time, but instead it’s about facing the situation in an honest way. Here’s what I mean: if you did something wrong, you’re accountable. No ifs, no buts… the responsibility sits with you. It doesn’t matter if it happened as a reaction to something that another person did or didn’t do; you are in full control of your own actions, so being able to identify when you’re the one who is accountable is an important step in being able to face the reality of the situation — because it’s only when you fully face reality that you can begin to make your peace with it. All too often we find ourselves justifying our words and actions, especially when it comes to those we’re closest to… I’m sure many of us have been guilty of saying things like, “Look what you made me do!” or “I only said that because you kept on provoking me!” — problem is, nobody can make you do or say anything. Someone can trigger your emotional responses, but you are the one who is in control of what you do or say… so instead of deflecting or focusing on assigning blame, be an adult and acknowledge your own responsibility. Mistakes aren’t great but they are how we learn, and I’ll come back to that in a bit. And before we go any further, can I also point out here that the ‘accountability’ thing is very different when things have been done to you against your will. I don’t want to trigger anyone here however I’m also not going to ignore an important point, which is to say that unfortunately sometimes there are things done to us that we have no accountability for but which still leave us with long-lasting feelings of shame and guilt. You are not responsible for those things and in fact this is the stuff that’s important to work through with a mental health professional, so please bear that in mind. Alright, so returning to the focus of things that you are directly responsible for, my next point is…  

Accept it — I talked about acceptance back in Episode 36 and it’s one of those messages that I tend to incorporate into most, if not all, episodes of this show: the past has passed, so all you can do is learn from it and accept it. Whatever you did or didn’t do is not going to be changed by your feelings of guilt or shame, because what’s done is done. You really only have two choices here: stay stuck in going over something that you cannot ever hope to change, or accept the situation as it is so that you can begin to move forward. Acceptance is the only healthy option that you can possibly make. If you’re stuck with this, then refer to Episode 36 like I mentioned a minute ago (and you may also find Episode 32, about letting go, to be helpful as well). So that leads me to my next point which is… 

Process it — OK, so at this point you should hopefully be deep into acceptance territory (and just to be clear, that doesn’t mean that you’re magically OK with whatever happened or didn’t happen; it simply means you accept things as they are instead of focusing on how you wish they were). Now it’s time to dig in and process what happened in an objective way. Why? Because this is where you identify the lessons you need to learn. Identify exactly what you did or didn’t do that feels wrong, consider why it feels wrong or like a mistake, and consider how you can repair the situation. You might find it helpful to write down your feelings; often that physical act of releasing them helps you to let go of the anger and hurt you’re holding onto and it can help us to look at the situation more rationally. 

And then, most importantly, once you’ve done all of that work on processing the situation, consider what you can do differently next time for a better outcome… and then, make the changes you need to make. You cannot change the past but you can always do better now and in the future. Commit to doing better and put in the work to turn that commitment into reality.

Put things into the broader context — instead of punishing yourself over what it is that you’re feeling negatively about, consider the bigger picture… because often there is a lot more at play than what you are choosing to focus on when you’re stuck in that negative place.

Apologise to yourself and to others if appropriate — remorse is one of those things that might often mean that you know on an intellectual level you need to make amends, but doing that can trigger fear. Just rip the band-aid off and apologise, first to yourself and then to whoever you might need to make amends with. You have no control over what others do or don’t do, so they may not accept your apology or it might take them a while to even consider it, but at least you’ve taken that step. And when it comes to apologising to yourself, well… it’s up to you whether or not you accept that, and only you can know for sure whether you truly are committed to doing and being better in the future. 

OK, so now I have a few general points about how you move forward from there, starting with: 

  • Choose to focus on you and your own words and actions — because you cannot change others, no matter how hard you might try… so by focusing on yourself you are better able to manage what is within your direct control.
  • Make a choice every day to prioritise learning and growing — which are essential components of being the best version of yourself possible, so make them a priority.
  • Endeavour to make healthy life choices in the future — if you want to limit feelings of shame, remorse and guilt as much as possible then choose to do no harm, be kind and give more than you take (both in terms of how you treat others and how you treat yourself) 
  • Practice kindness and compassion towards yourself — which you can do by working on your self-talk (which I looked at in Episode 9) and your self-esteem (which was the subject of Episode 43)
  • Remember that nobody is perfect — which is why non-judgement towards yourself and others is essential for good mental health, because we are all going to make mistakes from time to time; don’t judge others for not being perfect because nobody is. This is why cancel culture is dangerous; yes I understand it if you are repeating the same shit over and over again with no personal responsibility or accountability or remorse, but at least give people an opportunity to own their mistakes and do better before you cancel them (otherwise people wind up feeling terrified of making a mistake!).
  • Be prepared to forgive yourself more than once — emotions can pop up suddenly and unexpectedly, and you might think you’ve processed something and done the whole self-forgiveness thing then wham! Out of the blue it pops in your head and you find yourself feeling guilty all over again. So if that happens, gently work your way through all the advice I’ve covered and repeat the process of forgiving yourself by letting go of the guilt, and remind yourself of all the hard work you’ve done to learn and grow from whatever happened. And finally… 
  • Work with a professional — whether you’re struggling to deal with something recent or you’re ruminating over events from long ago, if you’ve tried all of these bits of advice and nothing is working then it’s time to work with a professional who can help you to work through your situation. You don’t have to go through your challenges alone, and with time, effort and perseverance you will be OK — but get the support that you need.

Summary and Close-Out

Because when it comes to self forgiveness and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Show me a person who has never made a mistake and I will show you a liar, because nobody is perfect and we all make a mess of things from time to time. But the most important thing about making mistakes is that we learn from them; if we don’t, we will never be able to fully forgive ourselves because we won’t have been able to look at the situation objectively enough to see the lessons it has to teach us. When you forgive yourself it allows you to move forward instead of becoming stuck in an emotional reaction to an event or situation that can never be changed, no matter how often you go over it in your mind. What’s done is done, so all you can do is accept it, learn from it and grow. When you do that, you’re able to let go of all the hurt, guilt, shame, anger and disappointment you’ve been feeling… and you can finally choose to forgive yourself.

The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today? 

Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:

“There is no point in being crippled by guilt. Simply acknowledge to yourself that you have done something wrong, learn by it, and get on with the rest of your life.”

Unknown

Next week I’ll be talking about rejection. One of the most fundamental aspects of the human experience is the desire to have a sense of belonging with others; to be seen, valued, respected and loved. So when we experience rejection, especially when it comes from the people closest to us and those we care about, it can be life-shattering. It’s possible to work through all of that but it definitely takes time, as do most things, and there are lots of different aspects to consider as you learn how to cope with feelings of rejection. So next week I’ll be talking about what rejection is, why understanding the impact of rejection matters for good mental health, and how to deal with rejection.

I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 30th May. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday, along with weekly episodes of No-Nonsense Advice for Living every Saturday on my other YouTube channel [or visit www.jeremygodwin.com.au]. 

Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and all past episodes and, while you’re there, join the mailing list for exclusive updates, my weekly newsletter and the transcript and audio links for all episodes. You can find the website links in the description of this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.

You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content daily.

Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.

Jeremy 🙂

Did you like what you just read? Then please share this with someone who might appreciate it, like a friend, family member, or coworkerbecause word of mouth helps other people to find Let’s Talk About Mental Health! Thank you 🙂

Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.

Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2021 Jeremy Godwin.

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