It is impossible to make it through a day without making some kind of error in judgment. You spill coffee, knock something over, forget to do things, and the list goes on. If you are really self-critical, you might hold onto these small errors, but most often they can easily be let go of.
However, the bigger mistakes are often not as easy to excuse. You might hurt someone you care about, make a poor ethical choice, or make a bad business decision. Sometimes, you hold onto these mistakes for years, unable to forgive yourself.
Just as forgiving others can set us free, so can learning to forgive ourselves. The following are some steps that you can take to clear the slate through self-forgiveness.
Give yourself space to grieve your losses. When you make a mistake, you are usually aware of it because it causes some type of pain. You may lose a trusted friend, self-respect, or an opportunity. Giving ourselves time to grieve what we have lost honors not just the part of us that made the mistake but also the part of us that has lost something because of it. When you acknowledge what you have lost and give yourself time to grieve, it softens you.
Understand why/what motivated you. Sometimes you make a mistake because of a lack of insight or information. Sometimes you make a mistake because of emotional pressure or intensity. But very often there is a clear understanding that you did not do the right thing. Understanding why you made the mistake allows you to empathize with yourself for the choice. It also helps you understand how you can avoid doing it again in the future.
See the intelligence behind your choices. It might be hard, if you just did something that you consider really stupid, to find the intelligence in it. While it might be a stretch in some situations, more often you can find a reason that is smarter than you thought. Maybe the choice resulted in more clarity. Maybe it brought something to the surface so that it could be cleared.
Put it all in perspective (big picture). Seeing the parts of the choice that were productive or supportive can help us get a broader view of the situation. What seems at first like a big loss might ultimately result in an even bigger win. Our defeats might result in a stronger character. And what about all the things that you have done right? Maybe this was a big mistake, but look at your track record. Perhaps you have made many more right decisions. Or, after a long stretch of mistakes, you have become ready to turn the corner. That is a huge step forward and puts you in a different relationship to your mistakes.
Honor and affirm the essence of who you are. No matter what you have done, there is a ton of good in you. It may be hard to connect with that when looking at your mistakes, but it is there nonetheless. When you are struggling with forgiving yourself, it is helpful to think about the core of who you are. What can you do to affirm this essence, especially at these times?
Commit to a new direction. It can be easier to forgive yourself when you make a decision not to make the mistake again (when possible). Making a commitment to a new direction means that we have acknowledged the error of our ways and decided to do something different. Being accountable to yourself and others through making better choices helps you feel better about yourself, and it is easier to forgive yourself from this place.
There is a point where you will realize that forgiveness is a necessary ingredient to your happiness: that you might as well start down the path of forgiveness because there is no other way to freedom. This is true of others, and this is true of ourselves. Carrying the weight of past errors does nothing to correct them—forgiving yourself does.