Forgiving Yourself: How To Deal With Guilt In A Healthy Way

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated September 25, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Do You Want To Forgive Yourself For The Past?

We may all make mistakes, but it's often how we handle them that truly matters. Forgiving yourself for past wrongdoings and learning from your experiences can be powerful tools for personal growth and development. Letting go of guilt and self-doubt can open the door to new possibilities and brighter horizons. As we examine why self-forgiveness is so important and how to move on with grace and strength, it can be helpful to remember that healing is often a process. You can forgive yourself for the past and look forward to the future with optimism, but it may take time, patience, and self-compassion. A licensed therapist, whether online or in person, can help you release guilt and move forward.

The Science Behind Guilt

Guilt is generally defined as a negative, self-conscious emotion that can occur when we do something we perceive to be wrong or regretful. Like other emotions aligned with self-consciousness, such as shame and embarrassment, guilt is considered a cognitive phenomenon that usually requires self-reflection on past actions.

On a biological level, guilt is usually associated with a release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which can trigger physical symptoms such as sweating and an increased heart rate. You may also experience psychological effects of guilt, like feelings of helplessness or powerlessness.

As our bodies experience the physical effects of guilt, so may our mental health. Guilt can lead to self-doubt, shame, and a decrease in self-esteem. Therefore, it can be important to distinguish between healthy guilt — the kind that serves as a reminder to stay on track with your goals and values — and unhealthy or unproductive guilt that may weigh you down.

Extended periods of guilt can lead to depression and anxiety, potentially affecting your physical, mental, and emotional health. When you enter a chronic state of guilt, it can be difficult to move forward with confidence and optimism. The physiological and psychological effects of guilt can create a negative feedback loop that is difficult to break.

Identifying your guilt and where it comes from can be the first step toward forgiving and freeing yourself from the weight of the past. But understanding guilt and its root causes may only be one part of the journey. The next step may be taking action to forgive yourself for past wrongdoings and moving on with grace, strength, and self-compassion.

The Power Of Self-Forgiveness

Self-forgiveness can be defined as coming to terms with your past wrongdoings and allowing yourself to move on without feeling weighed down by guilt or shame. The correlation between self-forgiveness and psychological well-being has been studied extensively. Research from the Journal of Counseling Psychology shows that those who can forgive themselves for past mistakes tend to experience greater mental health benefits than those who don't practice self-forgiveness.

Self-forgiveness can help you break the cycle of unhealthy guilt and reclaim control over your life. However, the healing process isn't always linear. It may take time and effort to accept yourself for who you are and move forward with confidence.


Here are a few tips to help you let go of guilt and practice self-forgiveness:

  • Acknowledge your mistakes: Identifying your mistakes can help you be more aware of the behavior that led to them in the first place. This knowledge may allow you to make more conscious decisions moving forward.
  • Understand why: Understanding why you made certain choices can help you process what happened and let go of guilt or shame. You may also uncover underlying issues that need to be addressed.
  • Learn from the mistakes: Once you've acknowledged and understood your mistakes, it may be time to learn from them. You can ask yourself how you might prevent similar mistakes from happening in the future.
  • Create a plan: Preparation is often the best defense against repeating past mistakes. A plan for moving forward can help you stay focused and avoid engaging in similar behaviors again.
  • Let go: To reclaim control and break the cycle of guilt, you may need to let go of the past and forgive yourself for the mistake. You can start by writing down your feelings or even simply saying out loud that you forgive yourself.

Self-forgiveness can be an important part of mental and emotional health. As you implement strategies of self-compassion and self-love, you can begin to heal and move forward with renewed confidence. However, letting go of guilt and moving forward is often a process. Forgiving yourself and moving on with grace usually takes time, effort, and patience.

One of the best strategies to overcome negative self-talk may be to practice positive affirmations. Positive affirmations can help you challenge negative thought patterns and create a more optimistic outlook. For example, when faced with negative thoughts, you can repeat statements like "I am capable" or "I will get through this".

Scientific studies frequently indicate that positive self-talk (PST) as a cognitive psychological technique can reduce anxiety and alleviate symptoms of depression. PST generally works by reinforcing healthy thought patterns, enhancing coping skills, and improving your psychological well-being. When we cultivate feelings of self-love and acceptance, we may create a healthier mental space that can help us achieve greater physiological balance and emotional stability.

Letting go of guilt and moving on with grace may only be one part of the journey. Learning from your experiences and gaining wisdom can be just as important. Reflecting on the past can help you recognize which areas of your life you want to improve. Perhaps there are skills or habits you need to develop, relationships you want to nurture, or values that are important for you to uphold. Each lesson can be an opportunity to grow and create stronger foundations for the future.

By embracing your mistakes, forgiving yourself, and learning from the past, you can gain the power of self-forgiveness and reclaim control over your life. When we forgive ourselves, it can create a ripple effect of positive energy that may help us move forward with greater awareness and appreciation for ourselves.

Overcoming Obstacles To Self-Forgiveness

While even the most resilient individuals may face barriers to self-forgiveness, we can learn to navigate our mistakes and emerge with newfound strength.

When we consciously try to be kinder and more accepting of ourselves, we can practice self-forgiveness and work toward emotional freedom. With this in mind, understanding your obstacles to self-forgiveness can help you create strategies for overcoming them. Some barriers to self-forgiveness may include residual guilt, fear of repeating past mistakes, shame and self-loathing, or difficulty in trusting yourself.

Do You Want To Forgive Yourself For The Past?

For those who feel challenged by their mistakes, it can be helpful to remember that self-forgiveness is usually more than a simple act of letting go. Instead, it's frequently about recognizing the importance of understanding our feelings and needs to move forward with greater clarity and focus. Some ways to overcome obstacles to self-forgiveness can include:

  • Actively coping with feelings of shame and unworthiness: Shame is often a powerful emotion that can lead to feelings of worthlessness or self-loathing. It can be important to recognize these emotions, but focusing on our strengths and positive qualities can also be essential.
  • Practicing mindfulness to become more aware of your emotions: Taking time to connect with yourself and practice breathing can help you stay grounded in the present moment. By becoming mindful of your thoughts and feelings, you may reduce feelings of anxiety and cultivate a sense of self-acceptance.
  • Making amends where possible: Expressing genuine remorse for hurtful behavior or words may help you heal and move forward. If the situation involves another person, you can apologize for your part, but remember that, ultimately, it can be up to them to accept your apology.

We may all make mistakes, but our past experiences can be a learning tool. It's often natural to have self-doubt, but it can be important to remind ourselves that we can still make positive changes and strive toward our goals.

Online Therapy Can Help With Guilt

Sometimes it can be difficult to travel this path of self-forgiveness alone. Online therapy can be an effective tool for exploring the obstacles that stand in your way and developing the strength to move beyond them. Through therapy, you can gain insight into why you may struggle with forgiving yourself and learn how to make peace with your past. With a supportive and understanding therapist, you can build the resilience to take on the challenges of self-discovery and progress toward a healthier, more fulfilling life. In addition, completing therapy online often eliminates many barriers to treatment, such as cost, accessibility, and fear of the potential stigma of visiting a therapist’s office.

In clinical trials, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to reduce feelings of shame and guilt. Additionally, depressive symptoms associated with these negative emotions may also be alleviated through CBT interventions. Studies show that online CBT is normally as effective as face-to-face CBT.


It can be challenging to let go of guilt, but moving on can be empowering and enable you to improve your overall mental health and well-being. You might start by acknowledging past mistakes, understanding why you took the actions you did, learning from your mistakes, creating a plan to act in accordance with your values in the future, and letting go. It can be helpful to actively cope with feelings of shame and unworthiness, practice mindfulness, and make amends when possible. An online therapist can help you work through shame and guilt as you learn to forgive yourself.

Release the weight of guilt

The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
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