How do I get past hating myself for a mistake I made?
I am so glad that you reached out for help, and that you talked with your doctor about a prescription to help with your symptoms. There is no shame in seeking out support from medical professionals, that is wisdom to know that you needed a little help! A huge part of the human experience is making mistakes, we all make them from time to time. It sounds like you have been really beating yourself up for several years about this choice that you made, and I want to offer some suggestions and support to better understand perhaps why you are “stuck” in that space of time and in your life.
People who struggle with depressive and anxious symptoms (or guilt and shame) often think in terms that are global, stable, and internal. I want to break each of those terms down individually to best understand this way of thinking. These terms are kind of like a fun-house mirror. They distort and twist our thoughts, feelings and beliefs into a different version of reality that feels so real.
Someone who is struggling globally thinks in terms of all or nothing. For example, they might think everything in their life is broken or damaged or destroyed because of one mistake they made. This feels like a global problem that is impacting every single aspect of their life, everywhere that they turn. But pause for a second and ask yourself – is this mistake still affecting every aspect of your life? Or are you allowing one mistake to impact and cloud everything else, even things that are positive in your life? Pause and reflect on the good things that you have going for you right now.
Someone who is struggling in terms of stability, they think in terms of always and forever. Those funhouse mirror thoughts, feelings and beliefs convince us that we will always feel this way, and we will never feel better. Our stability feels like forever, that we will always be stuck in this churning loop of guilt and shame over a choice that was made. But ask yourself, there was a time when you were happy before, you can be happy again!
Finally, someone who is struggling internally takes on all of the guilt, shame and blame as their own. They may even take responsibility for things that are not theirs to hold. They think that everything is their fault, and they cannot see that most situations have shades of gray, most things are not so black and white. When bad things do sometimes happen, even just by chance, they may even start to believe they deserve pain, hurt and guilt in their life. Ask yourself, do you feel you deserve to be happy? I hope the answer is a resounding, “yes!”
So, what do we do with these distorted thoughts, feelings and beliefs? How do we find the happiness beyond the pain, guilt and shame of a past indiscretion? The first step is to recognize these thoughts, feelings and beliefs for what they are, a distorted version of the truth. When we know that they are distorted, we are able to challenge and ultimately change our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. We can ask ourselves, what evidence do I have to support what I am thinking, feeling and believing? If we do not have evidence to support what we are thinking, feeling or believing, we can begin to replace those distorted ideas with kinder, gentler and more forgiving ideas. If a dear friend approached you with the exact same situation, what advice would you give them? Would you tell them that they need to punish themselves for the rest of their life? Or that they deserve forgiveness? Treat yourself like that dear, treasured friend; you deserve happiness too!
Forgiveness is possible, even for ourselves. It is a challenge for sure, but everyone is capable of forgiving with hard work and patience. One of the first things is to name and recognize your mistake. Write it out, tell your story and own your choice. Do not edit yourself, and do not leave any details out. Own your choice, every part of it. After that, you can begin to look at your mistake as a learning experience and an opportunity for growth. Are you a different and maybe even a better person because of the choice you made? Will you commit to not making that same kind of mistake again? Can you help someone else learn from your mistake and be a blessing to them? Can your words and support impact someone else’s life who may be facing a similar choice? There is a concept called post-traumatic growth, that basically states that we really learn to live when we can find the deeper meaning in our suffering. This was clearly a very difficult moment in your life that has impacted you profoundly. Is there a deeper meaning to the pain you have been through that you can see?
Continuing to punish yourself can sometimes feel like penance or making amends, meaning if you forgive yourself, you must somehow be saying that it is okay what you did, or that you approve of your choice, when that is just not the case. Forgiveness is not approval, it is not condoning or validating the choice you made. You can forgive yourself and still not be okay with the choice that you made and wish that you could have done things differently. Forgiveness is acknowledging that you made a choice you are not proud of and acknowledging and honoring that punishing yourself for the rest of your life will not change the past, it will only make your present and most importantly, your future, unhappy. Forgiveness allows you the opportunity for growth, compassion, kindness and love to re-enter your life, for you and the people you care about.