What past mistakes are you still tracking

How to learn to forgive yourself

I know that something is my fault. In the past I have hurt people with my behavior and then left them alone with it. I looked for quick solutions and fled problems. I have a big problem with this realization because it no longer fits my current self.

Guilt is like a ghost always by our side. Once we have recharged it, it may persecute us for our whole life. Not infrequently, whenever we dream about her, remember her, we hold grudges against us, maybe even dislike. How could I be like that? Why didn't I behave better?

Coming to terms with our past is one of the heaviest stones that lies on our way. But if we fail to get rid of feelings of guilt, not only will we stagnate, it also makes our relationships with other people more difficult.

How do feelings of guilt arise?

Everyone develops a more or less pronounced awareness of wrongdoing in the course of their life. And the thought: mistakes are bad. We are taught this at school, at home, through our justice system. Anyone who makes a mistake must be punished. Punishment erases guilt, that's how we internalized it. So we punish ourselves - with feelings of guilt.

And so they come after we have wronged others, caused great harm, or neglected important things. They can also occur when we act contrary to our personality - or our idea of ​​it. Those who are plagued by guilt consider something they * did to be wrong and condemn themselves for it as a person.

Often this goes hand in hand with endless subjunctive bingo: if I had, if I had, I could. As the psychologist Doris Wolf writes, a feeling of guilt is not a real feeling at all - it is just a conclusion and evaluation of our actions.

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Feelings of guilt have different triggers and occur to different degrees. The spectrum is huge. An extreme example that I deliberately leave without judgment: I have someone in my circle of acquaintances who was responsible for a car accident years ago in which two people were killed. For a long time he led a life with an irreparable guilt - and as a result with a cycle of self-doubt. It was difficult for him to find peace because he always questioned himself: Have I gambled my right to life as a person? May I laugh - or would that be disrespectful to the victims? We can certainly understand these feelings of guilt with him. Completely different from this example: someone gets in a clumsy conversation, says something wrong under the influence of alcohol and then feels guilty for days - believing that they have hurt the other person.

Although this seems like a triviality in comparison, both people have bad remorse and feel trapped in them for a long time. The severity of guilt affects both of them differently - but the guilt feelings work according to the same pattern. And even if that doesn't seem possible, this pattern can be broken.

How to forgive yourself

Regardless of why they occur, we should internalize one thing, according to psychologist Wolf: Feelings of guilt are useless. The doubts with which we punish ourselves do not undo our actions, nor do they avoid future mistakes, nor do they make amends. On the contrary: Strong feelings of guilt are unhealthy, they have a negative impact on our lives and our relationships. They tear open the wound anew every day, do not bring us forward, throw us into a cycle of brooding. We always focus on ourselves and our guilt and, on top of that, make ourselves manipulable because we no longer respect ourselves.

The problem with the process of self-forgiveness is therefore not the guilt itself, as the psychoanalyst and trauma expert Luise Reddemann says, but the feelings of guilt. Those who let themselves fall into them are stuck in the past, do not consider themselves worth living a good life, seek constant self-punishment. It is particularly difficult to get rid of that because we have to admit that as humans we are a limited being who makes mistakes. "In my experience, what we humans find most difficult to accept is our own powerlessness," says Reddemann. According to the expert, we should turn our gaze and give up hope for a better past.

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But that is exactly the crux of the matter: only if we accept our fallibility and understand that the mistake was the result of many circumstances and our supposed inability to do so, can we find a sensible way of dealing with our guilt. By showing sincere repentance.

Because those who show repentance take responsibility. Those who show repentance recognize behavior as wrong and regret it, but forgive themselves. Those who show repentance leave the past, come to the here and now and actively look for ways to correct them or at least for ways to correct their mistakes in the future avoid.

In order to forgive ourselves, it first takes sincere reflection and a journey within ourselves to where it really hurts: our own past. Because our way of dealing with guilt is strongly related to our self-image and self-esteem. We take our way of dealing with performance and mistakes with us from childhood - and also the urge to appreciate ourselves less when we make mistakes.

The author and blogger Stephan Wiessler gives clear instructions in five steps:

  1. Admit the mistake: Instead of judging yourself, recognize the problem and accept it.
  2. See your own good sides too: See yourself as a whole. Our actions, behavior, and mistakes in past situations do not define our personality. We have strengths and they shouldn't be hidden from yourself.
  3. Write a letter to yourself:This process can also be recorded in writing. That simplifies the processing.
  4. Be good to yourself:It is not absurd to comfort yourself like comforting friends.
  5. Arrive in the present:Letting go, arriving in the now and working on how to get the most out of life.

Those who train the ability to get on well with the person within themselves and try to be a friend to themselves who also praise them from time to time will get to know each other again and forgive more easily. Because, according to psychologist Wolf, it is important not to lose sight of the positive aspects of our personality. Then we can say to ourselves: I know that I am to blame for something, but I have forgiven myself for my mistakes. Now I'll make sure I don't do it again.


In our series “How to Find Yourself” we deal with how to cope in this fast-moving world. How do I get happier? How do I get rid of harmful thought patterns? For the tricks - we call them psychohacks - we deal with common studies and methods and interview experts.