The Reason You Can’t Forgive Yourself—and How to Change That

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Modern spiritual teachers like Gabrielle Bernstein and Mastin Kipp bring up the other F-word all the time: Forgiveness. But it's an age-old pursuit: Yom Kippur, which starts today, is the Jewish day of atonement, a day for reflecting on the year's "sins" and finding forgiveness within.

But often self-forgiveness is no easy task. "I think it’s absolutely critical to being on a path of wellness and fulfillment," says holistic lifestyle consultant and Zen Buddhist Maggie Lyon. The problem is that forgiving yourself for all of the stupid things you do (yes, you) is much harder than it seems, especially in our do-better culture, where constant pressure to be the best makes us feel like any slip-up will derail our entire livelihood. (Thanks, New York.)

So why can't you just give yourself a break and move forward?

Lyon says it's because there's too much focus on forgiveness and not enough attention paid to what lies beneath it. "It really starts from this place of deep, no-nonsense, unyielding self-love," she explains, "meaning that no matter what, no matter the suffering, mistakes, and missteps that we make, whatever it is, we treat ourselves with such tenderness that forgiveness is part and parcel of that."

Maggie Lyon
Maggie Lyon

And loving yourself enough to let go of that awful, gossipy story you didn't mean to tell after four martinis doesn't mean you're letting yourself off the hook for bad behavior, Lyon says. You can forgive yourself and also take steps toward not allowing it to happen again. "You can be okay, even though feelings of anger and disappointment and difficulty and harshness are floating around, and you’re nailing yourself for whatever you did. Allow it and accept it—you're still working on changing your habits and being better."

Here, Lyon shares a simple visualization exercise to help you get there.

A simple forgiveness visualization

1. Stop and sit. Close your eyes and get in touch with your breath, focusing on your inhales and exhales. "Bring about in your mind's eye what you've done, the act you're so obsessed and crazy about, and really feel all of the bad stuff it creates in the body, and just be with it," Lyons says.

2. Soften your thoughts. As you're picturing the situation, imagine the edges around it softening. "Accept the fact that it's happened, and at the same time start to wrap that act with love, try to just be softer and nicer with it."

3. Imagine yourself as someone you love. Self-love is hard, so use the love you feel for others to begin to imagine what it might feel like. "Call up a being that you love unconditionally, someone who you can easily see as someone deserving of love," Lyon says, like your perfect baby daughter or niece or amazingly generous best friend. Picture yourself as that person, and see if you can begin to apply the love you feel for them to yourself. "Come back to the breath and see if everything releases a little bit, if there's some kind of ease it has created in your body, and then open your eyes." —Lisa Elaine Held

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