Guilt on its own is not bad. Guilt encourages people to have more empathy for others. It also pushes you to corrective action and to improve yourself. An essential follow up to guilt is self-forgiveness. A healthy self-esteem requires it. Unending guilt is unhealthy.
To forgive yourself of something, you have to acknowledge it. That can be scary. Perhaps, in the past, your parents, teachers, or a boss let you know that mistakes were unacceptable. Perhaps you were punished harshly. Or, maybe, you are usually hard on yourself. I’m hear to tell you it’s okay.
Don’t be afraid to own your mistakes. Screwing up is part of being human. It’s how we learn and grow. We don’t hold it against children, and we shouldn’t hold it against ourselves. Our life is a journey. Think of your mistakes as stepping stones along the path of that journey.
Maya Angelou said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I’ve loved the quote since I first saw it. You usually see the shortened version that goes, “When you know better, you do better.” I like the original better. Your actions are what you can do given your situation, knowledge, personal growth, and many other factors in that moment. Do you wish you had done things differently now? Then retain what you have learned from it, and let the rest go.
Your mistake doesn’t make you a bad person. It doesn’t define anything about you other than making you human. We are a total package made up of our experiences, and one mistake, one experience, does not define us. It is just a tiny piece of the puzzle. A tiny piece of the complex person you are and the multifaceted life you lead. None of it is simple.
Different situations, lessons learned in the meantime, etc. all change how you may have acted in the same situation. Writing a redo may help. If you could do it over, what would you do differently? How would you change your actions? Doing this can show you how you have grown, or how your current situation would allow you to act differently.
The past is past. You need to turn the page on those mistakes. If you have done what you could to fix it, it is time to let yourself move on. Even as a mistake, it is part of what made you who you are. Accept it as part of your story.
In place of guilt
As you forgive yourself, replace that guilt with love and compassion for yourself. It isn’t selfish, conceited, or indulgent. It is the least you can do for yourself. As Christopher Germer said, “Self-compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others.” Be your own best friend and fiercest defender. Don’t let anyone, including yourself, tear you down.
Forgiving yourself can be hard at first, but the more you practice it, the easier it is to do. It feels less foreign, more familiar and a relief. It is a wonderful relief to not carry that guilt around and to not repeatedly beat yourself up over it. Give it a try.