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How to Forgive Yourself for Your Past Mistakes (and Move On)

Subhajit Banerjee

April 1, 2024


It all started innocently enough.

Chance encounters at the water cooler. Swapping movie and music recommendations.

They were colleagues sitting in the same cubicle. They were both married.

But before long, things shifted.

The casual office talks moved to instant messengers. They became more frequent and lasted longer.

He kept telling himself – it was all in good fun, just friendly chat.

But the lines started to blur.

Now it was grabbing coffee together. Over-sharing a bit too much. A twinge of sadness when the familiar “ding” of the messenger app didn’t ring throughout the day.

The mix of feelings was something he hadn’t felt in ages. It was hard to see this as just a friendly work relationship anymore.

You’ve probably figured it out by now.

Yes, I’m the man in this story. This all happened when my son was just a few months old.

Luckily, she moved to a different state. Then a small argument turned things sour, and that was the end of it.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. You could say the real story begins after that.

I had dodged the bullet. But I was still hit by the powder burn.

I realized what kind of danger I had been flirting with. I could have ruined the family life I cherished so much.

My self-image of a good husband and father was shattered. I was filled with guilt, shame, and regret.

What do you do now?

How do you earn your self-respect back? How do you live with yourself after such a mistake?

How do you forgive yourself?

I’ll get to that soon.

For now, just know it wasn’t easy. I had to swim through a swamp of self-hate, endless regret, and toxic shame before I could find solid ground again.

And I’m so grateful I did!

So what makes forgiving yourself for your mistakes so hard?

Mistakes are things you wish you’d done differently.

They replay in your mind like a broken record.

They torment you. They make you lose trust in yourself. They leave you feeling stuck in sadness, guilt, and fear.

You start defining yourself through your choice. You don’t believe you can fix it.

You feel as if you’re stained forever – a bad person.

So, how do you escape this nightmare?

The Answer You Didn’t Expect

The answer that I’m about to share might surprise you.

The first knee-jerk reaction might be shock. You will want to dismiss it outright.

It may sound wrong – especially if you’ve been trapped in a cycle of self-blame for a while.

Are you ready?

Here it goes…

You did the best you could at that time.

Outrageous, I know.

But it’s no surprise at all that this simple statement would trigger you so.

Not when you have been asking yourself these questions over and over:

“I should have known better.”

“I should have seen it coming.”

“I should have been able to stop myself.”

“How could I have been so stupid?”

Questions need answers. So what are the answers you arrive at?

You conclude you’re greedy, vain, shallow, amoral, lacking self-control, randy, immature and egoistic.

You compare your pathetic choices with the seemingly perfect ones others make every day.

They are becoming more successful, finding true love, enjoying meaningful relationships, gaining respect, and having better friends.

They seem in control, happy, rational, focused, and sorted.

They are good people.

And you’re the awful one who might have been better off not existing.

This is the unconscious gauntlet of judgment you put yourself through every day. The intensity varies, but it’s present – as true as daylight.

No wonder you feel miserable.

No wonder a statement that contradictory to your beliefs would trigger you so.

But think about it…

Is that judgment ever fair?

You’re judging your yesterday’s self with your today’s consciousness.

But how did you gain that consciousness?

Through that very mistake.

Without making that mistake and facing its consequences – you wouldn’t have the awareness you have now.

You’re in pain today because today you know you were wrong yesterday.

This is the gift of the mistake.

If you indeed want to blame someone, then blame the human unconsciousness. Blame the human condition itself.

Another little nugget to chew on…

Do you ever judge your friends with the same harsh dictates?

Of course, you don’t. If you did you won’t have any friends left.

So why are the rules different for you?

The Tricks of the Ego

What really happens when you blame yourself for your mistakes?

You’re saying “I” am to blame.

That’s your ego tricking you to take the burden of your unconsciousness.

Eckhart Tolle says that for ego, even an existence in misery is better than no existence.

So your ego will keep generating guilt to torment you. As long as you keep giving in to it, you’re keeping your ego alive and helping it grow stronger.

It wants to label you permanently. It wants to torture you until you accept that identity.

Then it has won – because you’ll keep repeating the same mistake to maintain that identity.

Remember – the ego’s job is to make you feel separate from others. It wants to create a distinct identity for you.

It doesn’t matter how miserable that identity is, how unhappy it makes you – as long as you’re unique.

So it leads you through blind alleys which only leads to one conclusion – that you are somehow more flawed, more stupid, more amoral, more weak-willed, and more corrupt than others.

Ego stops you from ever considering the vicious swoop of fate that led you to that junction.

It prevents you from reflecting on your unique struggles – the upbringing you had, the emotional challenges you faced, attachment issues, childhood traumas, your circumstances, and the temptations you battled.

It keeps you from seeing that you’re not different.

Anyone who would have been tested as you were would have failed.

Every day, millions are making the same mistakes and suffering as you are. The evidence is all around you – you just need to look.

And I’m not finished yet…

I can guarantee you – if you could have done better in that fateful moment, you would have.

But with your unconsciousness blocking you from your principles and values at that moment, with your conflicting needs – you chose what you thought was best. Even if it turned out to be hurtful, wrong, or illogical later.

So I repeat – you did the best you could at that time.

Now, the best thing you can do is extract the lesson, change directions, make amends, and move on.

I’ll teach you how to do that soon.

But first, I want to ask you something.

The Flawed Conditioning

Why do we have such a toxic relationship with mistakes?

You now understand that mistakes are part of being human. They’re how you learn and grow. So why were you taught to beat yourself up so harshly for them?

The clue, as usual, lies in childhood.

Growing up, you were told that mistakes were not okay. When you made them, you were criticized or even punished. So you learned to avoid them at all costs.

Because you tied making mistakes to your self-worth.

You concluded that making mistakes makes you less deserving of love. It makes you a bad person.

And the only way to be a good, lovable person was to be perfect and avoid mistakes.

What happens when you adopt this mindset?

You start to believe your self-worth is changeable.

It rises when you lead a perfect life. It plummets with every mistake.

And this mistaken belief is at the root of many of today’s social problems.

It has led to rampant virtue signaling by social media influencers.

It fuels the toxic swamp of judgment and condemnation on platforms like Reddit (Just go check out a random /r/AITA or /r/offmychest post and you will see what I’m talking about).

It leads to online witch hunts and mob justice. It leads to cancel culture.

No wonder the mental health endemic is engulfing everyone.

And that’s not even the worst part.

Do you know the real danger of this self-hatred philosophy?

When you accept that label – when you start to believe you’re beyond redemption – you begin to lose your humanity.

You lose empathy. You feel the world has rejected you, leaving you with no place to turn.

So, you decide to reject the world in return.

History is witness – this has led to unspeakable evils.

This is why it disappoints me to see people harshly judge others and label them based on their mistakes.

It must feel satisfying to sit on that high horse, judge and condemn others, and feel superior at someone else’s expense.

But it’s a step toward unleashing evil on the world.

True evil is denying someone’s humanity and degrading to something subhuman, just because of a mistake.

No one is too far gone.

Redemption is available to anyone who chooses it.

“Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” — John 8:7

What happens when you embrace this kind of radical self-compassion?

You shake off the heavy chains of guilt and shame, regrets and resentments. You step out of the role of a victim who constantly punishes themselves.

You stop feeling powerless and hopeless.

And once you’re out of that trap, you’re ready to move forward.

You’ll feel a surge of energy and motivation. You’ll rise above fear and do what you need to.

You can create a roadmap that leads you to regain your self-respect. You’ll find yourself in deeper, more meaningful relationships—the kind you’ve always longed for.

So how do you do all that?

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how you can go about that…

How to Forgive Yourself

Embrace your mistakes

What am I getting at?

Do I mean you’re off the hook, with no consequences?

Not at all.

Embracing your mistake isn’t about condoning or justifying your actions. It isn’t about pretending your actions didn’t hurt others (or yourself) either.

It’s about accepting the reality.

It’s accepting that the mistake is done. And no matter how much you beat yourself up, you can’t undo it.

So, what’s left? Moving forward.

See your mistake as a gift – a chance to learn and grow.

Ask yourself:

“What did this mistake teach me that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise?”

“How can this mistake help me live a better life?”

The answers will give you the grace to learn from the mistake and even be thankful for it.

I know I am now.

Calm your stress response

Let’s be honest, embracing mistakes is tough.

If it were easy, I wouldn’t be writing this.

A big hurdle is the flood of negative feelings that hit you when you try to accept your mistake.

Guilt and shame. Sadness and anxiety. Disgust and fear.

Not a fun cocktail to work with.

It triggers your stress response. It tempts you back to the familiar ways of beating yourself up.

So you need to know how you can calm your stress response down.

You have to manage your emotions.

Only then can you reach the calm headspace needed for the next steps…

The RVA (Regret → Value → Action) framework

Regrets are good.

It means you care about living a good life.

They’re like an alarm when you’re off track, guiding you back.

Let them guide you.

How do you do that?

Psychologist Emma McAdam talks about the RVA (Regret → Value → Action) framework, which has been a game-changer for me.

Think about a regret that you have.

For me, that would be the regret of getting emotionally attached to a colleague.

What value did you deviate from that caused you the regret?

For me, it was trust and intimacy with my wife and wanting the best for my family.

But my actions risked that. They could have caused so much pain for my family and me.

Next, figure out what you can do now to get back on track.

For me, it meant stopping it all. Confessing to a trusted friend.

And coming clean to my wife about everything. About what happened. About what kind of steps I’m taking to ensure this never happens again. And what kind of support I need from her to get my needs met.

It was not a fun conversation. But it had to be done.

So grab a pen and paper. Note your regret, the value it impacts, and the action you need to take.

There’s the roadmap for you.

“Each morning we are born again – what we do today matters the most.” — Buddha

Rise above fear

At this point, your ego will try to hold you back.

You’re threatening its existence after all. So it will try to cling to the labels. It will goad you to let go of this foolishness.

It will do so through a ton of fear. But you have to rise above it.

You have two options:

  1. give in to the fear and spend a lifetime nursing regret and guilt. Be a shadow of your true self. Hold on to the construct your ego created out of your unconscious self – that of someone who once made a mistake and didn’t own it.
  2. or rise above fear, embrace your principles, let yourself be guided by your values, and bite the bullet.

Only one choice leads to peace.

Pay the cost

Making the choice is just the start. You need to act on it.

Aim for healing and making things right. Commit to this path.

Otherwise, somewhere in your mind, you’ll always be “the one who made that mistake.”

But by acting, you start fixing things.

You ensure the harm caused by your unconscious actions won’t be repeated.

You start building trust again in the minds of the people affected.

You might even guide others to avoid your mistakes.

This is how you stop being defined by your mistakes.

Let go of the urge to control the outcome

Remember, you can’t control how others react.

They might forgive you, or they might not.

That’s their choice.

What matters is doing the right thing, aligning with your values, and sticking to your path.

Stay true, and the demons of guilt and regret won’t ever haunt you.

That’s what counts, right?

 

Now you know how to forgive yourself.

Will you take that first step?

Will you stop the self-criticism?

Will you decide to treat yourself with the same compassion that you do for others?

Will you rise over fear, shame, and guilt and hold yourself true to your values and principles?

If yes, then that’s someone I can respect.

And you’ll be able to respect yourself again, too.

The roadmap is laid out.

Take that brave first step. If that feels too overwhelming, if you need help with that then just book a call here. I’m here to help.

And whenever in doubt, remember that your past actions don’t define you.

Your choices today do.