The Fundamentals of Personal Growth: Forgiveness

Last week, the fundamental of personal growth was awareness. This week, it’s forgiveness. As will be a theme with all these fundamentals, there will be some overlap. Everything is connected.

Forgiveness is important to personal growth because you’re probably harboring some contempt for yourself about the fact that you’re not who you wish you were.

You might regret that you aren’t more fit, or that you don’t wake up earlier. Maybe you regret that you don’t call your mom more, or that you’re terrible at remembering birthdays. These desires to do better are normal, but if you’re on a journey of personal growth then I have a hunch that you are holding yourself in much more contempt than simply having regrets.

You won’t get very far in your personal growth journey if you continue to believe that you’re an inadequate failure because you don’t live up to arbitrary standards.

This particular fundamental of personal growth is the one I’ve had to work the hardest at, and it’s one I’m still working hard at, and the biggest thing I can’t seem to forgive myself for is not being the person I want to be, or the person I believe I can be.

Self-forgiveness is about forgiving yourself for not always being the person you want to be.

To extend yourself some grace:

1.Identify Limiting Beliefs

Often times when we make a mistake, we respond with all or nothing thinking like “I always do that” or “I can never get it right.” Listen to how you talk to yourself when you make a mistake. Identify the particular negative form of self-talk you employ. If you can notice it, you can name it, and if you can name it then you can work on replacing it with something less harsh like “I’d like to improve in this area of my life,” or “I’ll do that better next time.”

2.Take Ownership Over Your Mistakes

Research psychologist Juliana Breines writes:

Self-forgiveness can have a dark side. Research suggests that while it relieves unpleasant feelings like guilt and shame, it may also—in some cases—reduce empathy for others and motivation to make amends. In other words, self-forgiveness may at times serve as a crutch, producing a comforting sense of moral righteousness rather than a motivating sense of moral responsibility.

If you can admit that you’ve made a mistake or done something you’re not proud of, then it will be easier to explore how you can do better moving forward because you’ll know how you don’t want to behave, or what actions are out of line with the person you want to be.

Without the recognition of wrongdoing, what would there be to forgive? – Juliana Breines

You probably know that it’s perfectly acceptable to make mistakes, but admitting to them can feel vulnerable because most of us don’t want to think of ourselves as failures, bad people, or immoral. I challenge you to consider this alternative:

Admitting your mistakes is empowering.

Doing something bad, or behaving in a way contrary to your core being, does not make you a bad person.

peace-of mind-gerald- jampolsky

3.Identify Your Values so You can Live by Them

This approach to forgiveness overlaps with stage 2 in the awareness fundamental because there are so many elements that can begin to fall into place in your life when you know your values. If you don’t know what matters to you then you won’t have a framework for decision making, and you’ll be more likely to feel bad about choices that you’ve made without knowing why or how to improve.

4. Express Compassion

A few years ago, I had a counselor who engaged in Gestalt therapy with me. When I first met with her I was nervous because I knew Gestalt to be an aggressive from of therapy (by aggressive I just knew it was more than simply talking about your feelings), but it ended up being the most helpful therapy I’ve ever received because it encouraged me to cultivate compassion for myself.

My counselor had me imagine the part of myself that I hated, and talk to her. I moved across the room, sitting in one chair and then the other, talking to myself and saying out loud all these awful things I’d been thinking about myself. I saw this person who I hated as part of myself, and my counselor showed me that I could be compassionate to her. In my mind, I wrapped this part of myself up in a loving ribbon, and every time I started to think negatively about “Little Trisha,” as I called her, I’d wrap that ribbon around her. The process sounds a little out there, and I was resistant at first, but I’m so glad I eventually poured myself into it because learning to love Little Trisha was the biggest step in my personal growth journey.

[S]elf-forgiveness is not supposed to be easy, and without incorporating empathy it can feel empty. – Juliana Breines

The best effect from learning to love Little Trisha was that it was easier for me to love and express compassion for others. I felt less frustrated at my husband and approached our disagreements with empathy and understanding. Our marriage became so much more enjoyable because as I grew to love myself, I became more trusting. I grew closer to my family and friends because as I learned to stop judging, hating and resenting myself, I learned to stop doing the same to others.

I’m not perfect in these areas, and I still find myself holding grudges at times, but it’s now so much easier for me to let go and move on because I have started with practicing forgiveness for myself.

This practice of self-forgiveness and compassion can be tied back up into awareness.

If you can become aware, admit your mistakes and forgive, then:

[You can] begin to understand how [your] emotional and physical selves are connected and develop more self-confidence to start living a fuller life and more effectively deal with problems. (Gestalt Therapy)

Everything is connected.


In her Ted Talk “The Real Risk of Forgiveness and Why it’s Worth ItSarah Montana speaks about the power of forgiving others, but I think so much of what she says can be applied to self-forgiveness, as well. In particular, she says:

Forgiveness is the only real path to freedom

The thing about self-forgiveness as a practice in conjunction with self-awareness is that it cultivates a realistic view of the self. You can recognize who you are, in the present, and acknowledge the dream of who you hope to be without hating yourself for not yet being that person. You can find such cozy freedom within yourself that your body will feel like home.


Have you learned to forgive yourself? What is your process of self-forgiveness?


4 thoughts on “The Fundamentals of Personal Growth: Forgiveness

  1. I feel like this is an important part that I sometimes forget. I let the regrets eat at me at times, rather than framing it as something to forgive my past self for. It’s definitely a healthier way to look at it. I think in the rare instances where the distance between me now and my past self are great enough to think of that past self as a separate entity, it’s been very easy to forgive the mistakes. Adult versions of myself it’s been less so, so I really do see the benefit to that exercise you did of imagining yourself as a separate person. For all that I will quote to you from Speaker for the Dead about healing from the mistakes of the past by realizing you’ve changed enough that you wouldn’t make them anymore, I don’t seem to have a great record on doing it myself.

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  2. Yes, I agree that it’s harder to forgive the adult versions of ourselves. I can forgive myself easier for past mistakes because I was just a dumb teenager and how could I have known better? but it gets harder as an adult when I no longer have that excuse. I think I should know better, and how didn’t I?

    I wouldn’t say that I saw myself as a separate person, though. I saw “Little Trisha” as a part of me that needed my care. The aim of the exercise was to accept those parts of myself and love them, even though they’re flawed. In fact, I think the initial problem came from me disassociating from the parts of myself that I hated and trying so hard to get distance from them that I was downright mean to myself. I still do this when I don’t like something about myself. I’ll refuse to believe that it’s a part of me, but that avoidance always ends up coming back to bite me in the butt. I see how it could be helpful to think of yourself as a separate entity in certain situations, but in my experience it was better to accept than disassociate.

    I am especially vulnerable to all or nothing thinking in this category and I’ll get really down on myself for “always making the same mistakes.” It’s a hard habit to break!


  3. Ooh, I see. I got mixed up because my only instance of naming a certain part of myself like that is naming a past self, which naturally I see as separate as I have changed so much since then. For me, disassociation isn’t something I feel like I need to watch out for. I have experienced it, but the things I regret and need to forgive myself for are often old mistakes that I still feel like are part of me, things I haven’t given myself proper distance from.

    So stepping outside a bit, looking at it from a non-internal perspective/framing can be very helpful. When I do this, it’s not really the same as disassociating, because I remain present in myself as I do it. It’s more like looking in a mirror, I guess. I think perhaps they are able to sting so much partly because of my feeling that I haven’t moved past the mental habits that made me make those mistakes. The specific regret becomes the exemplar of a sustained flaw. This often drives me to feel like I need to FIX THE THING before I can move past the feeling of regret or forgive the mistake my past self made. There are heaps of problems with that, obviously, so it was a very nice thing to be reminded to take time for this.

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