How to Finally Forgive Yourself and Move On
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
*** contains brief mention of suicide, abuse, mental health struggles***
It has been eight years since my ex-partner and I broke up, nearly the length of our entire relationship. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. So, imagine my surprise when I found myself crying the other day to Bahamas, “Lost in the Light”, a song that still, to this day, reminds me of our relationship and break-up.
All of a sudden there I was, transported back eight years to a time and a woman I hardly recognize now. The nights I spent crying, the multiple jobs I worked while in school to support us, maintaining good grades so I could have some semblance of control, a sense of purpose. The fights that resulted in me apologizing, even though I was certain I'd had fair reason to bring my feelings up in the first place. The pleadings for him to get help, the researching help, only to have it ignored. The suicide watch. The begging. The sleepless nights lying awake feeling utterly trapped. The hiding of our issues from friends and family. The guilt trips. The desire to leave my life. To be saved from it. But the fear of what would happen if I left.
It’s funny how music can take you back like that. How, even with time, you can still experience those exact feelings deep in your bones. Viscerally.
I know I have some unresolved feelings about this relationship, mostly anger. But the sadness surprised me. I had spent so much time grieving that relationship while in it, that I was confused about where these tears came from.
Maybe they came from the grief we are all feeling right now, allowed to creep in because we are all feeling a little extra tender at the moment. The grief from a lifetime past. For the loss of a person who I was so connected with, so entangled.
While I think all these are somewhat true, upon closer examination, I realized these tears were actually for the person I lost in that relationship; a woman I did not and still do not recognize, though I know she is part of me. Tears for the woman I was before. For the woman I became. For the woman I could have been. For the time I “wasted” enduring, trying to “fix” the impossible.
Usually, this surfaces as anger. Sometimes anger at my ex, but mostly at myself. Anger at myself for staying. For not having known better. For ‘wasting’ my 20s.
This is the common narrative I play. And it isn’t helpful. But what I realized while hot tears rolled down my cheeks and Bahamas cooed “being free, leaving me on my own”, was that underneath that anger was actually sadness and shame and the realization that I still haven’t actually forgiven myself.
I haven't forgiven myself for losing myself. For allowing myself to be treated poorly. For trying to save someone at a cost to myself. For not listening to my instincts and for dismissing my needs and desires for so long. For the health problems it caused me. For the financial burden it cost me. For the dreams it cost me. For allowing myself to be broken for so long. For the time I ‘lost’. Time I “should” have been living carefree.
How do you begin to forgive yourself for the ultimate transgression: self-betrayal?
As I spent time thinking about this, not so surprisingly, the only answer I came up with is self- compassion. Self-compassion is the key to self-forgiveness; a remedy to shame and a necessary tenet of self-love.
While I certainly don’t have it all figured out, here are a few of the things I have learned or am working on to help with self-forgiveness. Perhaps they will help you too.
1. Find meaning
For anything challenging in life, finding meaning in it can help ease the pain. When we can believe there is a reason something happened (if that works for you) or more so, if we can find some meaning behind it all, it helps. It makes it not seem “all for naught”.
One way to help find meaning is to write out the lessons you learned from of the experience. This is something I have had to do with a lot of my grief, and an exercise I often invite my clients to do.
Start by asking: Who are you now because of the experience? What have you learned? For me, there are lots of things (not exhaustive):
I can’t save anyone but myself
Similarly, I am only responsible for my own happiness
I am strong
It is okay to choose myself/my own needs
A lot about mental health, failure of systems, abusive behaviours
What I need and want in a partner
My body is trying to tell me stuff. Listen to my body!
Love is not enough of a reason to stay with someone
I now also have a much lower bullshit tolerance and am determined not to stay in anything that makes me unhappy
I have a new “zest” for life- having spent so much of it taking care of other people, I am excited to experience it in new ways. There is a sort of urgency I have to “live life”
Also, understanding why you did something gives perspective and helps you be more compassionate to yourself.
For me, reminding myself that I have a history of chronic care-taking and putting others’ needs before my own, that my brother had battled with mental health for years before taking his own life and that at the same time I got into a relationship with someone who also had struggles with mental health, helps me make sense of why I got into the relationship and why I stayed so long.
I know that relationship offered support, understanding, love, and familiarity. And perhaps I had an unconscious thought that it was an opportunity to save someone in ways I couldn’t save my brother. When I think about all the factors that went into it, I can offer myself some understanding and compassion.
2. Find gratitude
I don’t necessarily mean gratitude for the thing happening, but for it allowing you to become the person you are now, or for allowing you to get to know/spend time with someone, have a certain experience, learn a certain lesson, etc. Gratitude is the gateway to joy.
I am grateful for who I have become because of that relationship. I think I am a way more compassionate, focused, determined, joy-filled person because of it. I’m also grateful for the relationship and getting to know my ex-partner so deeply. He is a good and creative person who taught me a lot, supported me in lots of ways, and there were lots of tender, wonderful moments.
3. Reframe the situation
Similarly to finding meaning, can you reframe the way you are looking at the situation? Can you notice your inner critic, those thoughts you have on repeat: “I’m a fuck up” or “I’m such a loser”, etc?
Do you carry beliefs that you need to be perfect? That you aren’t allowed to make mistakes? That you need to be “good” all the time in order to be worthy? Write these scripts and thoughts down. It will help you gain some perspective and know what thoughts you need to reframe.
For me, my most common repeat scripts are, “I should have known better” and “I wasted my 20s”.
Can you reframe them? Implement new, more helpful thoughts?
The truth is, I did “know better”, but I stayed anyway because I was scared about what would happen if I left. A more helpful thought for me is “I did the best I could at the time with what I had”. It gives me some relief and allows me to offer some compassion for myself.
I also like to remind myself that I got the chance to “live out my twenties” in my thirties, which was probably slightly less destructive (albeit my body doesn’t bounce back the same way it did in my twenties from late night partying).
4. Radical acceptance
This one is tough, and your willingness to think this way may depend on your belief system. Can you accept that everything happened as it should because it did?
It happened exactly as it was supposed to.
Regardless of what you believe, it is in the past now and there is nothing you can do about it. No amount of playing it over and over will change it. It will only cause you unnecessary pain. The past is for learning from, not living in.
5. Talk to your ___ year-old self
What did your younger self need to hear? What compassion can you offer? Safety? This can even be done for current things you are having trouble forgiving yourself for by identifying your inner child or past self that drove the action.
For example, you treated someone poorly because you are scared to get close to people, since in your experience closeness always results in pain and heart-break. What does that person who is scared to get close to people need to hear? How can you make them feel safe?
My therapist recently and brilliantly pointed out to me that not giving compassion to my past self, is in some ways, just another form of self-betrayal. Oof.
6. Write yourself a letter of forgiveness
This may be woo-woo, but can you write yourself a letter of apology (potentially from past self), followed back by a letter of forgiveness (current self), as you might to a friend, family member or partner? Might be worth a try.
I am so incredibly sorry for the way I allowed you to be treated. You didn’t deserve that. I’m sorry I allowed you to spend so much time and energy worrying, ignoring your needs and instincts, and feeling so alone. You didn’t deserve that...
Thank-you for saying so. I really appreciate it. I want to let you know I forgive you. I know you were young and you were doing the best with what you had. You tried really hard and I think you are pretty amazing. Thank-you for helping me become who I am today. I love you…
It can be a really powerful and transformative experience if you can get past how awkward it feels (think that's awkward, try sharing it on the internet).
7. Talk to yourself like you would a friend
Similarly, pay attention to how you are talking to yourself. If you wouldn’t speak to someone else like that, you don’t deserve it either. Can you reframe your self-talk as though you are speaking to a loved one?
8. Accept responsibility
If you wronged someone else, accept responsibility, acknowledge it doesn’t mean it is who you are or that you are a bad person. And then take the steps to amend it. This will help you forgive yourself.
9. Work with a coach or a therapist
Sometimes it is hard to do this on your own. Hearing yourself talk stuff out and get someone else’s perspective can really help. As Brené Brown says, naming your shame removes its power. You may want to do some of this with a coach or a therapist.
If you are struggling with limiting beliefs and how they are playing out in unhelpful ways in your life/getting in the way of your goals, I suggest a coach. If you are struggling with past trauma and harmful behaviours and patterns, a therapist might be a better fit.
10. Use the lessons as motivation for the future
I like to take the lessons I have learned and apply them to my future. Knowing what I have been through and learned, what are some things future me might regret? How can I take action now to ensure I don’t do things I will regret in the future? How can I use my lessons as motivation for how I want to live my life moving forward?
Like I said, future me would regret staying in another relationship that made me unhappy, continually sacrificing my own needs for others, not being present in my life, or giving up on my dreams for someone else.
Those are a few of my methods for working towards self-forgiveness. Working through these tips personally and even writing this blog, has helped me experience more self-compassion and therefore more self-forgiveness.
I like the person I am becoming, and I know she isn’t possible without the woman I was. All of it, all that hard shit, made me into the woman I am today. And I’m not ashamed of her anymore. In fact, I am proud of her. I understand that she did the best she could with what she had. And I am so grateful for that. She’s a part of who I am and I never want to hide that. Maybe that is what Bahamas actually meant when he said, “If someone could see me now, let them see you”.