Forgive Yourself

Setbacks—Forgiving Yourself and Learning from Your Mistakes

Self-loathing is so easy. Everyone has setbacks or makes mistakes, and many go through a period of being very hard on themselves afterward. After a mistake, you may be focused on the consequences or the sequence of events that led up to the mistake, but many people make beating themselves up a higher priority. Of all the options that you might consider after a mistake, beating yourself up is the least helpful. It’s important to be aware of when you’re doing this and replace it with other reactions. The first among these must be learning from the mistake, with forgiving yourself a close second. If you’re able to incorporate these reactions to mistakes into your life, there will be no room for self-loathing.

Negative self-talk


I used to have this terrible habit of calling myself an idiot. For a long time, it wasn’t even conscious. Even after the most minor slip ups, I’d mentally insult myself in a much worse way than I’d treat anyone else. It was a mental recognition of me making a mistake—usually minor, but the reaction was cruel and swift. Why is that? Why are people so hard on themselves? It can be related to setting high standards, but low self-esteem is also a possibility. Negative self-talk can be indicative of the way you feel about yourself. 

So, what can be done? The first step is developing an awareness of your self-talk. It can be in the form of specific messages, but for some, it’s more of a general feeling toward yourself in certain circumstances. However your self-talk manifests, you need to pay attention to it and become more aware of how and when it comes about. If your self-talk is regularly negative, examine the accuracy of the thoughts that these feelings or words are based on. Are they accurate? Are they fair? Would you come to the same conclusion if they were about someone else? Don’t treat yourself harshly or unfairly. When you do, catch yourself and take a moment to reflect and correct.

Recovering from a setback

Many people struggle with behaviors they are trying to enhance, curtail, or change. This might be a lifestyle change or something as dire as addiction. In any case, part of the process is learning how to handle setbacks. A lot has been written about forming or changing habits (here, for example), but I’m going to focus on when our efforts don’t go as planned—when we backslide or fall off the wagon. Changing ingrained behaviors is hard. People are hardwired to continue to behave in the way they always have, and when you want to change that, you’re literally changing the way your brain synapses are connected. It can take months to unlearn a harmful habit and develop a healthier one. So, when you slip up—when you have a setback and engage in “old” behaviors—it’s important to remember why that is happening. It’s not just weakness or lack of willpower. 

When a setback happens, we can choose to beat ourselves up. But if your goal is to make progress in changing your habits, the following steps will be much more effective.

  1. Forgive yourself. You’ll be in a much better place to recover from your setback if you are positive with yourself and supportive of your recovery. This means forgiving yourself—literally saying or writing, “I forgive you”—and meaning it.
  2. Examine the circumstances that led to the setback. When we slip up and revert to old behaviors, there is usually a reason. It may be stress, emotional turmoil, or danger areas, such as temptations. Be as specific as you can be about why the setback happened.
  3. Identify the lesson. How can you avoid the circumstances that led to the setback? What changes can you make in your life that will minimize those circumstances in the future? Make a plan for dealing with anything that might interfere with your desired behaviors.
  4. Look positively to the future. Get right back on your horse! You’re aware of what happened, and you’ve learned the lesson. Now, it’s time to move forward confidently. You can’t control what has happened—all you can control is what is happening now.

Mistakes will happen

Some of our mistakes are not associated with habits or long-term behaviors. Some of our mistakes are “one-offs,” and may be related to a lapse in judgment, unfamiliar circumstances, or emotional challenges. For anyone who is learning and growing, mistakes can happen all the time. If you’re hard on yourself after a mistake, you need to flip the script. You need to reinterpret mistakes as necessary bumps along your path. Mistakes can have negative consequences, but if you forgive yourself after a mistake and positively move forward, they can lose much of their negative vibe. When you make a mistake and find yourself being harsh on yourself, walk through the same steps listed above. 

Treat yourself as you would treat a close friend who made a mistake. Support yourself and help yourself learn. Move forward positively, armed with your newfound wisdom.

Mistakes happen—how you react to them is up to you.

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One comment

  • Bob February 12, 2022   Reply →

    Interesting. I always used to refer to you as an idiot, too.

    (Seriously though – good article. I will be sharing it with Julie)

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