How To Forgive Yourself For Hurting Someone Unintentionally

— Researched and written by Dr. Sandip Roy.

You hurt someone in some half-forgotten past, without actually meaning to. The regret and sorrow are still fresh after years, so you can’t forgive yourself even when you have forgiven many others.

You know you’d feel freer and lighter if you could forgive yourself, but it doesn’t seem to come by. Why?

“Others don’t have a permanent home in your head; you do. That’s why forgiving yourself, and letting go of the past, is so hard.”

You can’t escape your past sinful version of yourself. But instead of acquitting yourself, you hold yourself hostage and re-read those harsh self-judgments.

From a counselor’s perspective, these seven steps can help you forgive yourself if you feel guilty about hurting someone without meaning to:

1. Choose A Good Day

Pick a day without too many hard responsibilities or distractions, as it will help you have adequate willpower—which is a limited resource.

  • Schedule an appointment with yourself for a day when you won’t have any big tasks to do. Assign at least an hour to it.
  • Find a place where you can sit with yourself without getting interrupted. Get something to eat or drink. Carry your diary or journal.
  • Begin by checking out your daily worries and calming your mind. You could spend a few minutes deep breathing, thereby activating your relaxation phase via the vagus nerve.
how to forgive yourself for hurting someone unintentionally

2. Analyze The Mistake

Analyze the mistake in terms of what you learned.

Remember your mistake, and then write down all the positive learning experiences you gained from it.

When analyzing the mistake, focus on finding out how much of it was under your control. You may realize you did not have complete control over it at that time.

Once you have analyzed your mistake, let it brew over in your mind for a few days. Every time it comes to your mind, make yourself remember the learning you received from it.

Now that you see it in your hindsight, you know how you would prevent it from happening in the future with that learning.

Understand the difference between guilt and shame. Both shame and guilt are “self-critical” emotions, but the difference is that:

  • Shame suggests a lack of power to meet the standards of your ideal self (an act of omission)
  • Guilt involves power and intent to transgress your moral standards (an act of commission).

If you cannot understand why the whole thing went wrong, then ask a person for their opinion.

If you don’t find such a person to disclose your predicament, then approach a mental health counselor.

Forgive Yourself for Your Mistakes
Douglas Bloch on Self-forgiveness

3. Accept Your Emotions

Once you accept the feelings, forgiving gets easy.

If you feel guilty, ashamed, or angry, acknowledge the emotion. Once you accept, the journey of self-forgiveness gets easier.

Humans make mistakes, and many of those are egregiously stupid, but that’s also one of the ways to learn.

Okay, it may not be the best way to learn (by the way, the best way is to learn from other’s mistakes), but it is how you navigate around life.

So, be frank to yourself that you blew it. Once you accept and acknowledge it, the process of forgiving gets easier.

You often wonder, only if you could have forgiven yourself for the hurt you gave others, you could have made a fresh start. Then you realize no one ever showed you how to do it.

So, there you stand, guilty as hell. As the resulting stream of self-hate sends you tail-spinning into an abyss of depression.

Each emotion we experience has a purpose. Happiness indicates that something is going well and drives us to socialize with others. Sadness reminds us that we have suffered a loss. The same is true of guilt.

And don’t silence your inner critic. Instead, listen patiently to what it says about you. Let it make you feel whatever it wants to. Then note down the emotions your inner critic gave you.

4. Have A Deep Talk With Yourself

Listen to your neglected self with patience.

Start a conversation with yourself. Go over in detail why you need to forgive yourself. Remember, it’s easier to forgive a person when you love and care about them.

So, start with self-love. And you know what, love heals.

So, be that person to yourself that you love. Here’s how to love yourself without guilt.

Make it a point to carry over your journal. Write down the benefits of freedom from negative emotions you will have after you have forgiven yourself.

You can’t forgive without loving. And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, “I forgive. I’m finished with it.”

— Maya Angelou

One crucial part of any conversation is listening. So, listen to your neglected self with patience and without interruptions. This helps to own your mistake.

Ignoring a problem does not make it go away, but often makes it grow bigger while you are not consciously noticing.

So, listen to what your inner voices are trying to tell you. Talk to them.

If you can’t do it all in your head, as most of us can’t, create and write a dialogue between your inner voice and your conscious voice.

5. Validate Your Inner Critic

Give a great name to the voice in your head.

You already have a fair idea of what your inner critic thinks about it, as you noted them down in the first step.

Give your inner critic a respectful name to call. Now call it by their name, assure it you have listened to them carefully, and take their criticism into account.

And tell them now is the time to go together ahead on this. Be patient. It takes time to understand your inner critic is not against you, but your ally to make you into a better person.

You validated them, and now you need their help in validating your process of forgiving yourself.

Find a confederate or friend or a caring someone in your inner critic by talking to them with compassion and kindness.

And don’t try to change the voice. It’s you who must change guided by that voice. By the way, we should also not try to change others.

6. Forgive As You Would A Friend

Treat yourself as your best-loved friend.

Treat yourself as your best-loved friend, and forgive yourself without judgment.

Forgive yourself by writing it down. Release yourself by writing it down. Put it down in ink that you have forgiven yourself for that past mistake, once and for all.

Writing it down doesn’t mean you are condoning the act. When you forgive yourself, it means you are releasing yourself. Then on, you’re no longer in the clutch of the dark feelings associated with the act.

While writing, accept you have disappointed yourself by not meeting your moral standards. But also take solace in the fact that this one mistake does not define you. Write what you would do differently the next time.

Remember to be self-compassionate, which means treating yourself like you would a good friend. You might read aloud what you’ve written, and make changes if you like.

Give yourself a self-pardon, because your mistake was unintentional. This would make the constant pain of your past faults less painful to bear.

7. Celebrate The Newfound Freedom

Let go. A mistake doesn’t define you.

When you forgive yourself and release yourself from the burden of all those negative emotions, especially anger and resentment, you might feel you have lost a part of yourself.

But what’s the point of being regretful about a mistake you made all those years back? Why feel sad at letting that part of you go?

You no longer need that part of you, so let it go. Especially now, when you put sincere efforts to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again.

You have retained all the learning from it, and so you could release the rest of it.

You could even write in your journal about the specific things the failed relationship taught you. It would show the way forward about how you could better engage with people in your future life.

So spend a while taking stock of who you have become now, and how you have grown from that particular experience.

And now, go out and celebrate your newfound freedom. Bask in the tranquility of self-forgiveness. Talk yourself into the positive side of it all.

7 steps to forgive yourself unconditionally
7 steps to forgive yourself unconditionally

Three Quick Tips For Self-Forgiveness

If we only knew to forgive ourselves and wipe the slate clean, we could have a shot at a new life of possibilities. The trouble is, we don’t know how to release ourselves from our mental prisons.

Take a look at these three quick and easy ways to forgive yourself and let go of regrets:

1. Re-imagine

The first tip is about re-imagining the whole situation.

Now, you might know that your brain thinks it is the same as you are doing it in the real world when you visualize yourself doing something. It doesn’t understand the difference.

So we will use this scientifically proven information to our advantage when it comes to forgiving ourselves and letting go of past faults.

So, do this: Imagine how you’d re-do the entire experience.

Once you’ve re-imagined it, believe in it. And then journal about what you learned from that disturbing or embarrassing experience. Doing this not only shows us you’ve learned from it and moved on, but also that you’ll do better the next time.

Since the brain can’t tell the difference, when you imagine a new outcome, your brain lets it go as any other random memory.

So next time the memories of mistakes you’ve done in the past crop up out of nowhere, ready to ruin your day, try to re-imagine not saying those hurtful words, or not doing that upsetting thing.

2. Apologize

The second tip is to say Sorry and repair the connection.

Often, once you have at least tried to make some amends, you can stop the struggle to forgive yourself and move ahead.

Otherwise, you keep replaying the last fight you had with someone and injuring yourself every time with its retelling.

So if it’s safe to re-engage with someone you have wronged, consider trying to apologize for the hurt you caused them.

As always, it’s best to take ample time to organize what words to use and how to say those precisely. You might even practice saying them aloud before you meet them.

That way, you could imagine what they might say in response and rework your answers. So that when you go to repair the connection, you don’t find yourself making it even worse.

3. “Stop!”

The third tip is to stop your train of thought.

If you find yourself going back to that one occasion when you did a terrible thing, and wince in pain again and again for the hurt you caused, here’s the solution. Just pack up and toss off that annoying thought right at the inception. This way, you stop the negative train of thoughts from running all over your mind.

It is easy. Just say to yourself, loudly, or even silently, “Stop!”

When your mind wanders back to that negative situation or hurtful time, don’t let it linger. Just say “Stop” and shut it down.

There are some other ways to stop our thoughts from getting us into troubling feelings. One of them is to force your mind into thinking of a pleasant or funny memory.

Whatever the happy memory is, try to use all your five senses to re-tell yourself the entire story.

Most often, by the time we process that memory through our five senses, we have already ourselves pushed away from the negative memory.

Another way is to notice your thoughts. That is, you note how your mind is wandering into that hurtful space again, and tell yourself, “Now my mind is trying to pull me back in there and make me feel bad, but I do not want to go there.”

Often, just knowing what is happening, and recognizing the pattern, can stop it from taking wings.

Why Must You Forgive Yourself

Self-forgiveness is important because it releases us from the stress of harboring self-destructive negative emotions.

It is a healing process that restores our emotional balance. Forgiveness buffers the damaging effects of lifetime stress severity on mental health.

Greater lifetime stress severity and lower levels of forgiveness each uniquely predicted worse mental and physical health. Analyses also revealed a graded Stress × Forgiveness interaction effect, wherein associations between stress and mental health were weaker for persons exhibiting more forgiveness.

— Toussaint, Shields, et al., How stress degrades and forgiveness protects health, 2016

A study found people who scored high on the Heartland Forgiveness Scale (HFS) had better mental health. Research using fMRI brain scans showed forgiveness can even change the way our brain functions.

The benefits of forgiveness are ours when we learn the art of self-forgiveness. Self-forgiveness in true essence means saying:

  • I admit I did a wrong thing to someone.
  • I will remember not to repeat the act.
  • I forgive myself and let go of my guilt.

In the video below, author and depression counselor Douglas Bloch talks of the three reasons why those who suffer from depression need to forgive themselves for their mistakes:

Afraid to love yourself? Find out how to love yourself without feeling guilty.

Final Words

We spend hours rehashing the hurtful things we did to someone, from when we were a toddler until last year. We know forgiving ourselves could lift us out of that emotional dark pit and start us out on a new journey.

We know forgiving ourselves can sometimes be so much harder than forgiving somebody else. But it’s not impossible.

  • You accepted you made mistakes just like any human could have in your situation. But this doesn’t mean you’re rationalizing your mistake.
  • You have forgiven yourself. But this doesn’t mean you have to let yourself off the hook for similar acts in the future.
  • You have forgiven yourself to free yourself of the negative burden. And this means you’re ready to embark on a new journey of life.

One fast-and-simple advice: Re-brand your mistake as a Learning Experience.

Researched and reviewed by Dr. Sandip Roy — medical doctor, psychology writer, and happiness researcher.

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When it comes to mental well-being, you don't have to do it alone. Therapists can help you work through your trauma triggers and emotional patterns. Reaching out to a professional to feel better is a positive choice.