How to improve your life: self-forgiveness 101

In my last post, Meditation is a Practice, I wrote about slowly inviting some compassion into the way you treat yourself when you lost focus. For a short while, I’ve been trying to introduce that into more areas and I want to share how that works.

It begins with a surprisingly difficult task.

Forgiving yourself.

I’m trying to lose weight. I’ve been successful in the most important aspect so far (weighing less, obviously) but it has happened a lot slower than I actually expected. I have messed up many many times. If I’m in a lot of pain, I might try to eat the experience away (even though it literally never works) then feel guilty:

I shouldn’t have done that

I’m never going to lose weight at this rate 

Despite knowing overeating doesn’t make me feel good nor is it particularly good for my health, it still happens. As a result, I begin to hurl insults my way without resistance. They are brutal and a lot of the time, I think they are true (even if they aren’t upon honest reflection). It makes me feel bad about the things that I haven’t achieved and dismiss the things that I have.

So I feel bad about everything I’ve done regardless of whether it is good or bad. Obviously, it isn’t very fair.

We are all working drafts

Inviting compassion is pretty difficult to start with. Believing what you say is another question – it’ll all seems fake. Forgiving yourself is an important tool because it emphasises to us that we’re all works in progress.

None of us will ever be perfect but we can all improve slowly. While we do that, we’ll make mistakes, fall off the track and sometimes even go backwards. But there is a cruel voice in our head encouraging hatred because of mistakes that are bound to happen anyway – it is unhelpful and harmful.

To quieten it, we forgive ourselves our mistakes and try again. When we make mistakes, it’s a decent signal that we’re stepping out of our comfort zone and challenging ourselves. That is the path to improving. Not playing it permanently safe and hoping you get things right all the time.

Self-forgiveness creates a healthier environment for us to work and create in. As mentioned earlier, it shines light on the idea that we’re all a working draft. With this mindset, we are more likely to challenge ourselves in the future because we accept the idea that mistakes happen and they are much less worse than we thought.

Rather than improving in an environment of hostility, we improve with compassion – it simply makes the whole journey more enjoyable. Imagine this:

You’re about 10 years old and you’ve been asked to talk in front of the class. You’re nervous and hate public speaking (like most people apparently). You’ve started speaking and make a big mistake – which of the following are you more likely to try again?

1. *laughter from the class* – you hear murmurs of “I’m better than him” or “that was really stupid”. After the class, no one talks to you.

2. Your class is patient. You see encouraging nods and smiles prodding you to continue. After the class, a few people you say well done for talking in front of everyone.

The second (I hope). Even if you don’t get over the mistake straight away, at least you know people don’t care that much about the mistake and those who spend their time criticising you over a human error aren’t worth your time.

I’m not expecting a ten-year-old to get this straight away. But the second environment is something you can create for yourself by slowly silencing the internal critic and forgiving yourself.

Does forgiveness make us complacent?

No.

In a study titled “Self-Compassion and Reactions to Self-Relevant Events: The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly”, it was shown that it makes us see the world more accurately without all of the unnecessary harsh judgement. You actually become more accepting of criticism and see it as a chance to improve.

As a result, you can have more responsibility over your mistakes, fear failure less and continue working towards your goals with more drive.

Rather than hating ourselves for our mistakes (and implicitly assuming that we can’t get better because of them … even though we “should”) we begin to view ourselves in a more accurate light – a work in progress!

Rather than being welcomed by a growling dog who’s ready to bite every time you fall over, you’re greeted by a friend who helps you up and encourages you to try again.

Who is the only person in your life who is available 24/7 to provide you with care and kindness? You.

~Kristen Neff

Nor does it encourage ignoring mistakes.

When we forgive ourselves, it doesn’t mean that making mistakes is a good thing – rather, they are acceptable but they can worked on. There really is no point in hating ourselves for not being perfect – we’ll never reach that stage anyway.

How do you begin forgiving yourself? 

First, identify the lack of compassion then label it.

When you make a mistake, you might find yourself falling down the similar hole of self-criticism. If you notice the story beginning to play, label it as such.

“I am criticising myself for a mistake I made”

Then you can do one of two things. You can investigate it or let it be then watch it go. I prefer letting it be.

I found it helpful to say a few phrases to begin. My favourite is from our meditation friend, Joseph Goldstein “And simply begin again”.

• “Ok, I forgive myself for that, I’ll try better next time”

• “Mistakes are OK, I’ll try again next time”

• “I’m simply a work in progress – I can improve and I have improved before”

• “I’m improving slowly, not perfectly”

• “This criticism is unhelpful – mistakes happen. They aren’t permanent.”

We observe the initial frustration and notice it slowly melt away with the warmth of compassion. I will warn you, you’ll even make mistakes with forgiving yourself. You can forgive yourself for those too. It’ll become easier the more you practice. The more you practice, the more you can begin to enjoy your path to wherever you’re going.

I’ve said this many times – we’re all just a work in progress. We can improve slowly and improve with compassion.

“Will you call out, “I’ve got this,” and do your very best to be your very best?”

To do this, you forgive yourself for mistakes made in the past and get back to it. Think progress, not perfection.


As always, thank you for reading.

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References:

  • Barking Up the Wrong Tree – Eric Barker
    • For studies on self-compassion and forgiveness.
  • The Daily Stoic – Ryan Holiday
  • How to wake up – Toni Bernhard
    • For the method on identifying and assessing negative criticism.
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