The art of self-forgiveness

self-forgivenessEveryone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, King David, the Buddha, everybody.

It’s important to acknowledge mistakes, feel appropriate remorse, and learn from them so they don’t happen again. But most people keep beating themselves up way past the point of usefulness: they’re unfairly self-critical.

Inside the mind are many sub-personalities. For example, one part of me might set the alarm clock for 6 am to get up and exercise . . . and then when it goes off, another part of me could grumble: “Who set the darn clock?” More broadly, there is a kind of inner critic and inner protector inside each of us. For most people, that inner critic is continually yammering away, looking for something, anything, to find fault with. It magnifies small failings into big ones, punishes you over and over for things long past, ignores the larger context, and doesn’t credit you for your efforts to make amends.

Check out Meditations for Happiness (3 CDs), by Rick Hanson

Therefore, you really need your inner protector to stick up for you: to put your weaknesses and misdeeds in perspective, to highlight your many good qualities surrounding your lapses, to encourage you to keep getting back on the high road even if you’ve gone down the low one, and – frankly – to tell that inner critic to Shut Up.

With the support of your inner protector, you can see your faults clearly with fearing that will drag you into a pit of feeling awful, clean up whatever mess you’ve made as best you can, and move on. The only wholesome purpose of guilt, shame, or remorse is learning – not punishment! – so that you don’t mess up in that way again. Anything past the point of learning is just needless suffering. Plus excessive guilt, etc., actually gets in the way of you contributing to others and helping make this world a better place, by undermining your energy, mood, confidence, and sense of worth.

Seeing faults clearly, taking responsibility for them with remorse and making amends, and then coming to peace about them: this is what I mean by forgiving yourself.


Start by picking something relatively small that you’re still being hard on yourself about, and then try one or more of the methods below. I’ve spelled them out in detail since that’s often useful, but you could do the gist of these methods in a few minutes or less.

Then if you like, work up to more significant issues.

Here we go:

  • Start by getting in touch, as best you can, with the feeling of being cared about by some being: a friend or mate, spiritual being, pet, or person from your childhood. Open to the sense that aspects of this being, including the caring for you, have been taken into your own mind as parts of your inner protector.
  • Staying with feeling cared about, list some of your many good qualities. You could ask the protector what it knows about you. These are facts, not flattery, and you don’t need a halo to have good qualities like patience, determination, fairness, or kindness.
  • If you yelled at a child, lied at work, partied too hard, let a friend down, cheated on a partner, or were secretly glad about someone’s downfall – whateverit was – acknowledge the facts: what happened, what was in your mind at the time, the relevant context and history, and the results for yourself and others. Notice any facts that are hard to face – like the look in a child’s eyes when you yelled at her – and be especially open to them; they’re the ones that are keeping you stuck. It is always the truth that sets us free.
  • Sort what happened into three piles: moral faults, unskillfulness, and everything else. Moral faults deserve proportionateguilt, remorse, or shame, but unskillfulness calls for correction, no more. (This point is very important.) You could ask others what they think about this sorting (and about other points below) – include those you may have wronged – but you alone get to decide what’s right. For example, if you gossiped about someone and embellished a mistake he made, you might decide that the lie in your exaggeration is a moral fault deserving a wince of remorse, but that casual gossip (which most of us do, at one time or another) is simply unskillful and should be corrected (i.e., never done again) without self-flagellation.
  • In an honest way, take responsibility for your moral fault(s) and unskillfulness. Say in your mind or out loud (or write): I am responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . Let yourself feel it. Then add to yourself: But I am NOT responsible for ______ , _______ , and _______ . For example, you are not responsible for the misinterpretations or over-reactions of others. Let the relief of what you are NOT responsible for sink in.
  • Acknowledge what you have already done to learn from this experience, and to repair things and make amends. Let this sink in. Appreciate yourself. Next, decide what if anything remains to be done – inside your own heart or out there in the world – and then do it. Let it sink in that you’re doing it, and appreciate yourself for this, too.
  • Now check in with your inner protector: is there anything else you should face or do? Listen to that “still quiet voice of conscience,” so different from the pounding scorn of the critic. If you truly know that something remains, then take care of it. But otherwise, know in your heart that what needed learning has been learned, and that what needed doing has been done.
  • And now actively forgive yourself. Say in your mind, out loud, in writing, or perhaps to others statements like: I forgive myself for ______ , _______ , and _______ . I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better. You could also ask the inner protector to forgive you, or others out in the world, including maybe the person you wronged.
  • You may need to go through one or more the steps above again and again to truly forgive yourself, and that’s alright. Allow the experience of being forgiven to take some time to sink in. Help it sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others for you to stop beating yourself up.

May you be at peace.

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18 Comments. Leave new

Ann Becker-Schutte
July 25, 2011 12:04 am

Lovely! What a compassionate, caring piece. Thanks for the practical exercise.


THANK YOU! The gentle, honest, insightful approach has helped to soften the rough, jagged and hurting edges of my soul. This has been immensely helpful.

Forgiveness Lesson IV: Self-Forgiveness | Spiritual Competency Resource Center
December 5, 2011 8:59 pm

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January 8, 2012 12:43 am

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[…] The art of self-forgiveness | Wildmind Buddhist Meditation – StumbleUpon Here we go: […]

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May 11, 2012 6:34 pm

[…] We have all experienced events in our lives when we have held onto painful emotions such anger, sadness, guilt, and shame. Sometimes painful emotions are directly outwardly towards others, accompanied by experiences such as blame, resentment, doubt, or anger. These are times when we feel that we have been wronged by another and are faced with the choice of how to respond to the real or perceived transgression(s), what personal responsibility we are willing to take for it having occurred, and whether or not to forgive. Other times we may experience ourselves as the transgressor, filled with guilt, shame, self-doubts, or sadness. In these times, we also must make the choice of how to respond to the situation – not only by asking for forgiveness – but ultimately through engaging in the soul-searching process that leads to authentic self-forgiveness. […]

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August 16, 2012 6:27 pm

[…] the process outlined below is primarily the work of Rick Hanson, it also includes what I’ve learned about conditions of satisfaction from Molly Gordon and […]


This really helps. Thank you.


Amazing article, very insightful. I shared it on my page for good karma


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December 9, 2012 11:49 am

[…] ”The art of self-forgiveness Everyone messes up. Me, you, the neighbors, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, King David, the Buddha, everybody…” Läs vidare här […]


Love this! Print and use


Thank you very much! This article is very helpful for me :)

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October 12, 2013 2:26 am

[…] The art of self-forgiveness ( […]

Jennifer Landsberger
February 25, 2015 12:02 pm

I’m not sure I can possibly get my inner critic to shut-up. But thoughtful, wonderful piece.
I’m worried about focusing on the positive and then committing the sin of pride, though. Any advice?


I’d argue that the point is not so much to get the inner critic to shut up, but to stop taking it so seriously and to ignore it when its views aren’t needed. Then you can learn to listen to it when it’s appropriate — and we all need an inner critic to keep us on our toes.


Thank you for this. It honestly was exactly what I needed. I had somehow lost touch of the light worker I was , but now I’m back.

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June 28, 2015 11:10 pm

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