20 Ways to Forgive Yourself, Even When You Have Made A Huge Mistake

You just blew it.

You’ve ruined everything.

You lost the big financial deal.

Or you made a bad decision and you’ve lost the love of your life.

Or you said something rotten and lost an important relationship.

Or you did that compulsive behavior you promised you’d never do…You gambled, you over-ate, you over-sexed, you used that substance.

Or maybe you crashed the car.

Or you invested in a terrible stock.

Or you cheated, you lied, you stole, you injured…

Why is it so hard for us to forgive ourselves after we’ve made a mistake?

Human beings tend to overcompensate for errors and mistakes by committing self-torture.


Our brains want to avoid public humiliation.

Evolutionary psychology informs us that most of our behaviors are the result of natural selection. Thus the tendency to self-criticize developed over many thousands of years because self-criticism probably led to a higher survival rate among humans.

The primal brain thinks ‘If I criticize myself and become angry at myself, perhaps I can avoid future mistakes and avoid being clobbered or abandoned by my tribe.’ 

In that tribal, primal environment, self-criticism is a survival technique.

But the worst part of intense negative self-evaluation is that it actually makes us less likely to succeed at our goals.

Please do try to clean up the mess!

And let’s be frank, when you’ve messed up, it would be better for you and all concerned that you try to ‘clean up your mess.’

And as a licensed psychotherapist I absolutely encourage you to do all you can to make amends and work to repair any damage done.

Self Acceptance leads to Personal Effectiveness

But we’re not talking about just cleaning up the mess. We’re talking about the self-thrashing, self-trashing you go through when you’ve done something wrong. And how that negative self image makes you LESS effective at cleaning up the mess.

What psychological research HAS found is that Self-Acceptance--NOT self-esteem building–leads to a more flexible self-definition. And Self-Acceptance gives you the ability to take new action to solve the problems to which you may have contributed.

Why Self Esteem Building Doesnt Work.

Self Esteem is the idea that you hold your SELF in high regard. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) holds the idea that we must abandon ideas of SELF as good or bad, high or low.

IF we rate ourselves highly we are liable to rate others lowly. And we’re more likely to believe we are such a terrific human being that we are above criticism. Research has shown, in fact that, quite often, BULLIES have very HIGH self-esteem.

And if we rate our Self Esteem as Low, that’s equally false. We do not become ‘bad people’ because we do bad things.

Both High and Low Self Esteem are frauds. The SELF cannot be categorized as good or bad.

So How Do You Stop Hating On Yourself?

So what to do? How do you stop clobbering yourself over your errors?

Here are some actionable tips to help you forgive yourself for a mistake you’ve made and help you move on!

1. Identify the fears: 

Identify the fears of making mistakes and the mental commands behind them.

Example: My bank account is low. I should have planned ahead. I made a huge mistake. I need money. I fear I am a loser.

2. Dispute-the BS (Belief Systems) 

How does going broke, making a poor financial decision, make me a loser?

3. Create Rational Coping Self-Statements

Now it’s time to talk to yourself like you would talk to your best friend, or your son/daughter. For example “Being broke, and making poor financial decisions or big financial mistakes doesn’t change my value as a human being. Just because I’m losing right now doesn’t make me a loser. I can accept myself even with an empty wallet and bank account and yes, even with my record of poor decision making. I’ll try hard to change this but I can still accept myself in my current situation while trying to change it. I can choose Unconditional Self Acceptance (USA).”

Does talking rationally to the irrational part of your brain actually work? When you use realistic evidence based arguments, you bet it does!

4. Positive Visualization

Instead of doing the standard polyanna version of Positive Thinking–yknow “I’m awesome and people love me”–try seeing yourself going through the self hatred after making a mistake. THEN, See yourself convincing yourself that you are still acceptable, life is still acceptable in its lousy current state.And see yourself now behaving with and feeling Self-Acceptance.. Rehearse the visualization.

5. Modeling

Talk with or study people who were able to successfully accept themselves despite failures or mistakes in their lives–read biographies and autobiographies as well. By identifying where your heroes have made mistakes, you gather more evidence for your own humanity, fallibility and forgive-ability.

6. Cost-Benefit Analysis

Make a list of the costs of maintaining the thoughts of self-condemnation and unforgiving thoughts.–how is it subtracting from or hurting your life? Make a list of the advantages of moving forward and challenging your self-condemning thoughts. What will this help you achieve? 

7. Teach Your Friends Self-Forgiveness and Self-Acceptance

“We teach what we need to learn.” Often when teaching a friend how to handle self-condemnation we further habituate ourselves to practice the same self-acceptance techniques on ourselves. So go out there and teach your pals about unconditional self-acceptance (USA)

8. Relaxation Techniques

Yoga, Meditation, Exercise, Relaxation Response, Progressive Relaxation–all teach you how to focus on something other than your self-condemning thoughts. Look at a Youtube Videoon these subjects and get moving!

9. Distraction Techniques

Watching sports, television, listening to music or any involving activity will temporarily distract you from your self-criticism. They wont eliminate it, but will give you a brief reprieve. This is not a lifestyle–just a tool to give you some respite as you regroup and try to solve your problems.

10. Use the Problem Solving Method

Analyze your situation–write down multiple possible solutions or actions you can take to CHANGE the situation. Start testing out various solutions. Assume that one solution will work. Continue to seek other solutions. Set realistic, manageable goals to solve the problem.

11. Unconditional Self Acceptance 

USA. Thats the acronym for Unconditional Self Acceptance. Choose it. Choose to be defined by it.  USA means that you recognize that ‘I am not my behavior. My self is not defined by my behavior. I can accept myself and still be unhappy with my behavior.’

13. Unconditional Life Acceptance

ULA stands for Unconditional Life Acceptance. ULA means accepting that your life situation ‘is what it is.’ While you can work to change it, you would be better off starting with accepting that what has happened, has indeed happened.

ULA means identifying and stopping the “this must not be” and “I can’t stand living in a world like this” and changing it to “this is whats happening, I’ll have to work with the situation that is currently happening. No use in saying it cannot be–it is.”

14. Changing Emotional Imagery

Imagine you are in the most upsetting situation, the one in which you’ve made a mistake–the situation you are afraid of, and it is going terribly. See yourself being highly self-critical. Then slowly move yourself emotionally to a calmer, more rational, more accepting state of mind and emotion.

15. Shame Attacking Exercises 

Stop the self-condemnation based on the fear of embarrassment or shame– Shame Attackig Exercises are specifically geared to assist you in seeing that disapproval from others is not life ending.

Examples: Walking a banana on a leash. Going into a coffee shop and asking them if you can buy some engine oil. Asking someone on the street ‘what year is this?’

By experiencing awkward situations–and living through them–you expose yourself to the fear of shame and embarassment. The more exposure you get, the less power these concepts have over you.

16. Sense of Humor

Look at your self condemning thoughts and perhaps exaggerate them to the point of ridiculousness. Example: You didnt just make a mistake, you destroyed everyone and everything through your foolish error. The stock market, the weather, the fabric of society was wrecked by your error. …

Or, you’re not just bad, you’re worse than Hitler. You are the worst human ever to live–worse than Atilla the Hun.

See the absurdity of overemphasizing your self critical thoughts.

Photo by Pixabay on

17. Use the ‘Gremlin’ Technique

Imagine the harsh self-criticism is being voiced by the silliest, most ridiculous cartoon character you know–Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Elmer T Fudd, Foghorn Leghorn and have them exaggerate the criticism. e.g. ‘You are the worst person, the dumbest person’ etc.

When you hear the criticism in these silly character voices you can recognize it as a part of you that is panicked, scared and is trying to help you. Try this–when you hear that critical voice, switch it to the silly character voice and simply ‘thank’ that part for trying to protect you.

“Thanks Donald Duck, for trying to help me.”

Donald might then get louder and more aggressive saying “No, you don’t understand, you really are a trash person, you are no good, you stink, you shouldnt be on the planet.”

Again, thank him for trying to help…eventually he will tire out.

18. Leaves on a Stream, Clouds in the Sky, Cars Going By

Imagine your thoughts as actual sentences that you can see. In your imagination, see yourself sitting near a flowing stream with leaves floating by. Viisually place these self-critical sentences on leaves and watch them float away. Do your thoughts seem more visual? Then put a photo or mini video screen of your visual self criticism on a leaf and let it float away down the stream. Use this same technique with clouds floating by or imaginary cars driving past your home. Put the thought sentences or visual pictures or video screen on top of the cars passing by, or the clouds drifting by. And then say Bye-Bye. Let them go…

19. Label Thoughts As Stories

Every time you notice a seriously negative self-criticism, say to yourself “Oh, that’s the ________ story again.

Example: “Oh, thats the ‘complete failure’ story.”  “Oh, that’s the ‘I’m a fraud’ story.”

As you continue to identify these negatives as ‘stories you tell yourself’ you will feel less identified with these ideas about yourself.

20. Forgive Yourself for Self-Criticism

Look, even when you have the tools for self acceptance, you may STILL regress at times and find yourself doing it again. At those times allow yourself the freedom to be a fallible human being. There’s no cure for being human–but there are tools to manage your humanity towards yourself.

Remember we’re all just human beings and we are all worthy of self acceptance!

I’d love to hear your comments, questions and suggestions!

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These techniques are adapted from the pioneers in REBT, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy–Albert Ellis and ACT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy–Russ Harris.

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©2020 Ross Grossman, MA, LMFT

Affinity Therapy Services

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