Life doesn’t show us previews. It plays out before us unannounced and urges us to act immediately. No wonder we make mistakes from time to time. Ideally, we should be able to recognize these mistakes, learn from them, and gain greater wisdom for the future. But do we really do so?
Many of us succumb to the inner critic instead, and deride ourselves to the point of closing down in shame. Not only do we let ourselves down in our time of greatest need, we also fail to put things into perspective and make amends if necessary.
Over time, this habit gives rise to feelings of anxiety and depression. It can also lead to self-loathing, addictions, and self-harm. Softening our stance towards ourselves is the first step to getting back on the high road, even if we’ve compromised our personal standards in a serious way.
This can be difficult. Forgiveness takes courage and strength, as Megan Bettencourt writes in Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World. But take heart—as humans, we’re actually hardwired for it! To become our own best friends, we need to exercise its muscle regularly, as in these practical, scientifically-backed strategies.
Put Things into Perspective
The two hemispheres of our brains are different in their outlook on life. The left hemisphere focuses in on things while the right hemisphere sees things in context. Luckily, as humans, we have the unique ability to use both hemispheres simultaneously. This allows us to disconnect from the yammering of the inner critic and place the problem in a larger context. It takes effort, but it’s well worth it!
Admit to Wrong-doing
One of the maladaptive ways we cope with the onslaught of the inner critic is to plug our ears and negate its voice completely. This is wrong for many reasons. We disconnect from our values, fail to learn from our mistakes and do not take the necessary action that would make amends and build relationships. Admitting to wrong-doing allows us to differentiate between what psychologist Rick Hanson calls moral faults and unskillfulness. Moral faults—for example, lying about someone—deserve remorse and the responsibility to repair the resulting damage. Unskillfulness—as in gossiping with no harm done—simply calls for correction.
Have Empathy for Yourself
Acting responsibly in the aftermath of our mistakes is easier to do if we are kind to ourselves. Psychologist Kristen Neff says that self-compassion is not self-pity, nor is it giving ourselves the permission to act in inconsiderate ways. Rather, it’s about acknowledging our pain, recognizing our common humanity, and thus finding the courage to step up and do the right thing.
Appreciate your Goodness
Our inherent negativity bias often blinds us to all that is bright and beautiful within us. Without knowing our strengths and appreciating our goodness, we can feel hopeless and disempowered to make things better. In Broadcasting Happiness, positive psychology expert Michelle Gielan writes about the power of optimism in transforming stress and overwhelm into actionable steps for improvement. She says that something as simple as a acknowledging our strengths triggers the brain to release dopamine and boost productivity.
Ask for Forgiveness
Once we forgive ourselves and embrace our full being, we find the courage to ask for forgiveness. This is one of the most vulnerable acts we’ll do, but it is also one of the most responsible. Of course, the other person may not be ready to forgive and it will take patience and humility for us to sit with the uncertainty until they are. But as long as our apology is sincere, and free of conditions, we will receive forgiveness in the end.
Become Forgivingly Fit “Forgivingly fit” is a term coined by Robert Enright, a pioneer researcher in the psychology of forgiveness. It’s about building the forgiveness muscle by consciously forgiving others when we can. Refraining from honking at others at traffic lights or holding our tongue when a friend or spouse snaps at us are just some ways of nurturing the forgiveness instinct.
As you take steps to become increasingly forgiving, remember that we do not strengthen the muscle overnight. It’s a process that takes time, as author Khaled Hosseini writes in The Kite Runner, “…with the pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.” And what it leaves behind is a sense of liberation like no other and the fulfillment of finding meaning in our own suffering.