How to Forgive Yourself: A Parent’s Guide to Letting Go of Failures
It's hard to forgive yourself for past mistakes. But it's necessary. This is how to move on.
It was 10 years ago, but Andrew hasn’t been able to forgive himself for the accident.
Andrew’s daughter was two, and he was playing a game with her, raising and lowering her on the footrest of a reclining chair. At some point during the game, the 2-year-old lost her balance and got her finger caught in the bracket of the chair.
“I swear, I thought I cut off her finger,” says Andrew, a restaurant manager in Rhode Island who asked Fatherly to withhold his identity.
As it turned out, her finger was only cut. But it was a much bigger event for Andrew. “There was so much blood, and she was screaming,” he says. “Her mother came in and took her to the bathroom to look and control the bleeding, and I was just frozen on the recliner asking if she still had her finger. I was too scared to look under the chair, thinking her finger might be there.”
A decade later, Andrew is still mad at himself.
“I think every parent has that moment in private with their newborn where they tell them they love them and will never let anyone hurt them,” he says. “I know I did. And you can’t help but feel bad when you fail on that promise.”
Ask a lot of fathers what they have trouble forgiving themselves for. You’re likely to hear hundreds of stories similar to Andrew’s, ones that often end, “It’s my job to keep my kid safe, and I failed.” No matter what the misstep may be — that they didn’t help enough when the baby was born, or they dropped her while giving her a bath, or lost their temper with a child or partner, or even cheated — an inability to forgive oneself is complicated and can stem from a number of factors. Today’s high expectations of parents to be perfect at all times haven’t made it any easier for parents to give themselves a break about little infractions.
“Society’s view of parenting has changed dramatically,” says clinical psychologist and Pepperdine University professor Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., LMFT. “Many parents feel like they have to do everything right or they’re bad people.”
Learning how to forgive yourself for big and small errors is important for personal growth. It also teaches your children crucial lessons: how to be vulnerable, how to accept and move on, and how not to be overly critical. And it helps you lead a better life.
The Parent Trap
Men often feel pressure to provide for and protect children. It can be difficult then, per Sultanoff, to forgive themselves for not doing those things. While not the case for all men who have trouble forgiving themselves for mistakes or bad behavior, an inability to forgive oneself can sometimes morph into anger.
“Anger is an underlying emotion that protects a negative core belief,” Sultanoff says.
People generally have one or two primary negative beliefs about themselves, such as “I’m unworthy” or “I’m a failure,” he says. If a man’s belief is I must do things right or I’m useless, not forgiving himself for a mistake reinforces that belief.
Holding onto distress about a mistake can be motivation to never let it happen again. But refusing to forgive mistakes also keeps anger and hostility alive, Sultanoff adds, which can eat away at you and even cause negative physical effects.
“It’s also not good because the goal is an impossible one,” Sultanoff says. “You can’t protect children 100 percent of the time. That’s crazy.”
Regarding Andrew’s guilt about his daughter’s injury, Sultanoff offers, “What’s the solution, never play with your child again?” As another example, Sultanoff says he knows parents who feel that if their child forgets their phone at home, they need to bring it to them as soon as possible, because what if something happens and they don’t have their phone? Parents who blame themselves when anything negative happens to their children therefore can get stuck in a perpetual cycle of perceived failure. Because things are going to go wrong no matter how hard you try to be perfect.
“Parents have been indoctrinated to be more protective, and it’s a lot of pressure,” he continues. “Say a dad’s teen is old enough to drive, and he’s debating between two cars. If the one he chooses breaks down or she gets in an accident, he’ll blame himself and think, I made the wrong decision.”
Why Self-Forgiveness Can Be So Difficult
It’s important to understand your reasons for doing things in general, and an inability to forgive yourself is no exception, says Michael Kinsey, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City.
“Punishing yourself as a way of correcting behavior can make you feel guilty and ashamed and do more bad things down the line because you feel like a worthless person,” he says.
Anger is a shield. Beneath it are more vulnerable feelings such as hurt, betrayal or powerlessness, notes Kinsey. “The rest is kind of bluster — it’s a defense and creates a kind of callus, or emotional scar tissue,” he says. “It keeps you from healing around it.”
Self-forgiveness demands vulnerability. But it is common for men to struggle with expressing their emotions and allowing themselves to be vulnerable, says licensed psychotherapist Markesha Miller.
“Vulnerability is important in forgiveness because one must be able and willing to acknowledge hurt,” Miller says. “We may see this difficulty portrayed through lashing out, withdrawing from family and friends, a nonchalant attitude, and for some, even substance abuse.”
Some men who have trouble with forgiveness might respond by becoming angry, but it’s difficult to separate cause from effect, notes Frederic Luskin, lecturer at Stanford University, director of The Forgiveness Project and author of Forgive for Good. It’s likely that people who have a higher tendency to anger also have issues with forgiveness as well as a higher tendency destroy more relationships and overreact to mistakes. Either way, he notes that the negative feelings associated with unforgiving nevertheless affect your life in subtly damaging ways.
When you can’t forgive yourself, Luskin says, “You’re reviewing and seeing things through a lens of past anger, failure, or discomfort, so you’re less open to seeing what’s actually occurring now.” That, he adds, “could make new relationships very problematic, or lead to decreased availability to one’s children and could predispose people to find problems that may have something to do with unresolved stuff.”
Put simply, the inability to forgive oneself is protective against vulnerability and forgiveness is the reclaiming of that vulnerability, he continues. But although elements of it can be explained simply, forgiveness is complex and difficult to learn to do.
In a lecture Luskin gave in 2004, he told his audience that forgiving isn’t about forgiving a “thing.” Rather, it “emerges when you’re at peace.” It’s not a one-and-done act but more a state of being and an ongoing process. To forgive, you access your capacity for peacefulness to guide you. “When you’re at peace, you don’t have enemies,” he said. “Agitated, you do.”
Learning How to Forgive Yourself
Rewiring oneself to become vulnerable and thus allow self-forgiveness won’t happen overnight. But a good way to begin is to make an effort to focus on unhelpful “if, then” thinking, such as “If I don’t protect my children, then I am a bad person,” Sultanoff says. It’s much better to work toward more positive assumptions, such as “If I do not protect my children, then I did the best I could at the time, given the information I had. I wish it hadn’t happened, but I am still a good person, even when I do things that I later dislike.”
It’s also helpful to figure out what you get out of not forgiving yourself. Consider asking: How is it helping me?
“Look first at your motivation: What’s maintaining your choice not to forgive?” Sultanoff says. “People say they ‘just can’t forgive people,’ but that’s not true. It’s a choice”
Reaching this stage may require some heavy-duty unpacking of feelings that go back to your upbringing, Kinsey says. For example, let’s say you yelled at your kid because you were abused as a child. If you feel really awful and ashamed about it, Kinsey says, acknowledge that in the environment you grew up in, that behavior made sense.
“Now that you have a son, doing those things don’t align with your values and what you want to do,” he says. In other words, instead of hating yourself for repeating the pattern, work to change it.
“Researchers who talk about this make a distinction between ‘decisional’ and ‘dispositional’ forgiveness,” Luskin says.
It starts with a choice, where you say, “I just don’t want to go down this path again,” whether the issue is feeling distant, abusive, inadequate or whatever. Or the costs of resentment, bitterness, and unhappiness become too high.
“It really has to be both decisional and dispositional,” Luskin adds. “Forgiveness is not just a one-moment thing — it’s a choice, or practice, a combination of a decision and ongoing behavior.”
Also essential to true forgiveness, he adds, is emotional maturity.
“A key aspect of it is the ability to sit with some pain,” Luskin says.
The process of forgiving is similar to grief, or a loss or challenge, he says. Luskin describes the process as a meditation of sorts: Your heart needs to open to the experience of grief, where you can think, Of course I feel terrible, I made a terrible mistake and be able to sit with that until it no longer has emotional force, he says.
A good place to begin, therefore, is to learn self-regulation, he says: “You have to be able to regulate your own nervous system, otherwise you’re a victim to it and owned by a past you don’t like.”
Self-regulation is just a fancy term for breathing or any psychophysical practice to manage your nervous system. “It means learning how to calm down,” says Luskin. “Breathe into it or talk yourself down.”
Some men might find calm going for a run or doing yoga. If you have a tendency to be critical because you were hurt — not an uncommon tendency — find two things a week that somebody does that are kind toward you or positive, Luskin suggests.
“That will replace the habit of criticizing. It will take a while; that’s what makes it hard,” he admits. “Once a grievance gets into the nervous system, it’s hard to change the programming.”
For some, a starting point that’s sometimes easier is to simply stop complaining so much, he says: “Seriously, just shut up. When you want to say anything bad about an ex, for example, find something else to say.”
Self-forgiveness can be a long journey. But certainly worthwhile. Because, as a parent, it’s important to teach your kids that expecting perfection from yourself and others is a recipe for self-torment because it doesn’t leave room for forgiveness.
“You want to train children to be able to handle disappointment, not to be above it,” Luskin says. “It’s much better to offer compassion and honesty about one’s flaws and to have a capacity to sit with some of the pain of it. So you don’t have to run from it and can look at yourself and say, Yeah, I made a mistake and I feel bad about it. Here’s what I learned.”
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