We often have high expectations of ourselves and become upset when we fail to live up to our ideals. Self-forgiveness is crucial for moving past our perceived failings and growing and thriving both personally and professionally.

We spoke with Carole Pertofsky, MEd, Stanford Director Emerita, Health Promotion Services and Lecturer, School of Medicine, on why we’re prone to self-criticism and how we can cultivate self-forgiveness to lead happier, healthier and more productive lives.

“As Dr. Fred Luskin explains in his book, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness, holding onto resentment and being unforgiving increases our stress levels and takes a toll on our well-being. The good news is that we can learn skills to become more constructive and effective in accepting and rectifying our errors — and, in the process, grow as individuals.”

We believe that we need to be hard on ourselves in order to be successful.

We can learn and mature through mistakes, but we’ve been taught that if we don’t criticize ourselves for our failures, then we won’t take responsibility for ourselves or cultivate discipline.

“We develop and internalize many misgivings about self-forgiveness, fearing that if we don’t judge ourselves harshly, then we’ll become lazy, incompetent or unsuccessful. The reality is that this belittling mindset sabotages our efforts to lead fulfilling, meaningful and happy lives.”

Self-criticism is evolutionary and influenced by temperament.

Our tendency to be critical of ourselves may be rooted in our genes. Pertofsky explains that early humans depended on each others’ contributions to survive. If someone made a mistake, it could spell hardship for the entire tribe, resulting in that person suffering a punishment — such as banishment or even death — for the error or oversight. Despite living in modern times, we are still hardwired to be vigilant about making mistakes.

“The important takeaway is that there is nothing personal nor is there anything ‘wrong with us’ when we are being hypercritical of our behavior performance.”

Temperament can also affect our level of self-criticism. Some people can be troubled by events that would not bother another person, and others are more prone to exaggerating small mistakes into huge crises — a tendency called “catastrophic thinking.”

Self-forgiveness improves our well-being and productivity.

Research has shown that those who practice self-forgiveness have better mental and emotional well-being, more positive attitudes and healthier relationships. A related outcome ties self-compassion with higher levels of success, productivity, focus and concentration.

“Self-forgiving people recognize that a lack of self-forgiveness leads to suffering.  They are kind to themselves, which reduces their anxiety and related depression.”

In comparison, those who are highly critical of themselves are more likely to experience significant negativity, stress and pessimism.

Realize the difference between guilt and shame.

Pertofsky says that mistakes can cause us to feel guilt and shame; however, the two feelings are different. Guilt occurs when we behave in a way that we regret, which can lead us to constructive course-correction and help us become more deliberate in our thoughts, words and actions. Shame arises when we feel our very being is under attack and makes us feel demeaned, undeserving and lacking.

“Shame is often secret, buried deep and leads us to feel very isolated and separate from others. Self-correction becomes very difficult because we feel that at our core we are unworthy, deficient, hopeless and alone in our pain.”

In a professional setting, shame may cause us to feel we aren’t good enough to be at our workplaces, leading us to become competitive against team members or isolated from others. In our personal lives, we may assign ourselves negative labels and perceive others as being more socially successful, likeable and engaging.

“We long to become that ‘amazing’ person. Have you noticed how regularly we use ‘amazing’ as a descriptor?’ How on Earth can we all be amazing all the time?”

Achieving goals brings fulfillment, but perfectionism is toxic.

Learning a new skill or achieving a meaningful goal takes time, and we may get discouraged when we encounter challenges. By being resilient and overcoming those challenges, we become more capable and live up to our expectations of ourselves.

However, problems arise when we strive to be perfect in meeting our goals. Pertofsky cautions that perfectionism is toxic because “being perfect” is an unachievable illusion. Striving for the unachievable is a recipe for massive stress, constant disappointment and problems with our physical and mental health, such as depression and anxiety.

“Perfectionism is a trait that defines life as an endless scoreboard of accomplishments. Not only are perfectionists striving for success, they are also desperately avoiding failure.”

Establish realistic expectations.

To create realistic expectations, Pertofsky advises clarifying your expectations and considering your work-life balance. Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • In this matter, what is my definition of success that takes into account all aspects of my life, including my values?
  • What benefits will I gain? To what degree do I choose to set my expectations? Am I aiming for a five-star level performance? Why? Is “good enough” acceptable in this particular matter?
  • Do I realistically have the resources (time, space, funds) to focus on this without creating undue stress and anxiety for myself and others?

Based on your answers, you should be ready to create a range of realistic expectations for your competing priorities, some of which will be high and others just “good enough.”

Take a four-step approach to self-forgiveness.

Even after establishing realistic expectations, you will still have failures and may experience shame. When that happens, consider how you would respond if a friend told you they feel bad for making a mistake. Pertofsky points out that most people would not further criticize their friend. Instead, they would respond with kindness and understanding and help their friend find a way to fix the situation.

“Self-forgiveness is treating yourself as you would treat your own friend. It is a skill that involves mind, body, heart and action.”

Pertofsky offers a four-step approach to self-forgiveness, based on Dr. Kristin Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer’s research on self-compassion.

  1. Practice awareness. The first step is to accept your discomfort without judgment. Prepare to do some soul searching by asking yourself, “Am I realistically assessing the impact of my mistake, or am I blowing it out of proportion?”
  2. Remember our shared humanity. As babies we learn to walk by falling down and getting back up again, which is how adults who are self-forgiving treat their mistakes. Instead of criticizing themselves, they understand, learn and grow from their vulnerability, failures and embarrassments.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Give yourself the gift of time to take care of yourself and your needs. The sense of self-kindness will grow each time you are self-forgiving. Ask yourself, “What do I need right now? How can I be kind to myself and soothe my discomfort? How can I take one small step towards forgiving myself?”
  4. Take action. Consider what you can do to rectify the mistake with honor and self-respect, and then put it in action. Rectifying an error will lift your burden and help you move beyond a past mistake that is still affecting your current life.

Sometimes errors can’t be fixed. When that happens, accept your humanity, the imperfect nature of life, and the reality that regrets can be painful. Then, instead of blaming your core self, reframe your thinking as, “Something in me deeply regrets that I can’t fix this mistake.” Finally, with humility, accept that the mistake occurred, reflect on what you learned, and set the intention to do better next time.

“Learning to be self-forgiving is a skill that requires practice. Over time, you will notice that you are more relaxed, open and happy. You will be able to notice and appreciate how much pleasure can be found in a simple moment, how much there is to be grateful for in everyday life, and how much the world needs you and your special gifts and talents.”

By Katie Shumake
July 2019

Stanford Resources