How to forgive yourself for a big mistake—even if no one else will

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Let’s say you’ve done something bad. Not the “I really shouldn’t have had that third succulent cupcake at lunch” bad, but the kind of bad that makes you question the state of your soul. It’s the “cheated on your partner” bad, the “spread a vicious rumor about a friend” bad.

You know what you did was morally repugnant. You feel awful and you want to make things right with the person (or people) you’ve hurt. You’ve finally worked up the courage to say, from the bottom of your heart, that you’re deeply sorry. But—surprise!—they don’t want to hear it. For them, the damage is done and their anger towards you is too strong for any kind of forgiveness.

It can be devastating for an apology to be denied, but another person’s forgiveness of you and your actions doesn’t have to determine how you continue to treat others—and, ultimately, yourself. Of course, that’s no easy task for many, considering we’re infinitely harder on ourselves than anyone else.

“When we break our own standards, a lot of times we won’t let ourselves ‘off the hook,’ so to speak,” says Robert Enright, PhD, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute and author of Forgiveness Is a Choice. “Self-forgiveness is not a free pass to keep up the nonsense. It’s to restore your humanity to yourself, as you correct [the damage you’ve done].”

Okay, but how? To find out, I asked a few experts for guidance on how to pardon yourself when others won’t. Because this is one area of life where it really is okay—necessary, even—to say you’re sorry. (When speaking up in a meeting, on the other hand? Totally different story.)

Read on to learn how to forgive yourself in the face of a major wrongdoing

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How to forgive yourself
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Apologize without expectations

Even if you don’t think the hurt party will forgive you, Enright says that apologizing is the right thing to do, and it’s an important step in the process of self-forgiveness. “Seeking forgiveness and forgiving yourself go hand in hand,” proclaims Enright.

You should also make an effort to right your wrongs—for instance, paying your roommate back if you’ve been sneaking money from her wallet. “You can set yourself free knowing you’ve done the best you can,” says Enright. “You can get rid of the resentment towards yourself, understanding that you are a human being, and try to see you’re a person beyond what you’ve done. You’re more than that action.”

How to forgive yourself
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Dive deep into your emotions

The cycle of guilt and self-loathing is far too easy a place to get stuck, sometimes for a very long time. And it can have a serious impact on your health—when you stay trapped in a shame loop, it can lead to issues such as sleeplessness, depression, self-medication, and lack of proper nutrition and/or exercise. (Not to mention it’s a blow to your gut health.)

Chicago-based therapist Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW, explains that guilt, shame, and resentment can actually mask the root of the problem. She urges you to ask yourself: “What is this guilt made of? Is it fear? Is it sadness?”

Once you figure out exactly why you’re feeling so bad, you can start making things right. After all, as DeWoskin points out, “You’ve never made a good decision motivated by guilt.”

Both Enright and DeWoskin suggest those on a journey of self-forgiveness try things such as going to a respected therapist, seeking out a friend or confidante, trying meditation or mindfulness, or journaling to deal with ongoing emotions and thoughts.

How to forgive yourself
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Don’t get attached to the outcome

While you’re working to forgive yourself, it’s important not to get stuck on the other person’s reaction to you. “Your forgiving yourself should never be [contingent on] what the other person does or says,” Enright says. “It’s the same thing with forgiving another: If I want to forgive another, but I have to wait for their apology, then I’m still trapped in that resentment.”

DeWoskin also notes that it’s “nobody else’s responsibility to make you feel a certain way,” so don’t hang on the possibility of an apology or possible forgiveness to chart your course. “In the end, everyone is responsible for their own feelings…and [forgiveness from another] is not the cure-all,” she says.

Of course, it’s hard to be on the receiving end of negativity when you’re already getting plenty of it from yourself. So if your ex keeps responding to your “let’s talk” texts with silence or snarky comments, that may be your cue to take a step back and focus on your own healing—and making sure that your actions are more in line with your values moving forward.

“Once you make the choice to forgive yourself and you’re ready to not feel guilty, it’s about walking the walk,” De Woskin says, adding that you can go on and live an insightful life that’s more reflective of the choices you are now making. Apply “a sense of worth and compassion towards [yourself] as an imperfect person who can be weak,” says Enright, and “slowly but surely you’ll love yourself again and find acceptance within.” Turns out “I forgive” really is one of the most powerful phrases in the English language.

You don’t have to do something terrible to sabotage your own happiness—here are some subtly destructive habits you may be engaging in without even realizing it. Plus, more tips on how to let go of the past and create a meaningful future

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