Here’s a wild idea for you: What if you don’t need to stop being a perfectionist? Right now, you may think that if you could just get rid of that perfectionist part of yourself, then you would be all right. But the truth is that you will only arrive at a felt sense of being “all right” when you accept yourself for who you really are. What if you could feel safe and loved even in the midst of the perfectionism? What if you could have the visceral knowledge that you can be uptight, obsessive, and controlling . . . and still beloved?
Fortunately, there’s a way for us to get to that inner knowing; it’s called self-forgiveness. In this article, I’ll share more about what this looks like, and I’ll offer a specific practice at the end. But first, let’s get honest about what it actually sounds like in your head here, now, today. What does it sound like when you’re beating yourself up about something you’ve done or failed to do?
Maybe you’re thinking,
- I can’t believe I spent so long researching that movie online! I’m such a loser.
- I forgot to write down that thing! I’m so messed up.
- I didn’t send that birthday gift yet! I’m such a bad friend.
Perfectionists like us are really hard on ourselves. Early on, we learned to demand personal flawlessness because in some way it kept us safe. But that same behavior now only succeeds in tearing us down.
Instead of getting stuck in the shame-and-blame game, let’s see how it feels to accept ourselves and offer ourselves forgiveness—for all of it.
Here’s an example of how this looked for me recently, when I left a pot of rice cooking on the stove for too long. (Though I’m meticulous in most areas, I’ve had my fair share of cooking mishaps. Back in elementary school, I absentmindedly put a plastic plate in a toaster oven because I was eager to get back to a book and also because I was concerned about crumbs dropping from the bread to the burner below. Needless to say, the melted plastic plate made a much bigger mess than the crumbs would have.)
So when I realized what I’d done with the rice, my first reaction was frustration: I can’t believe I forgot again! I didn’t want to lift the lid and see that I’d ruined perfectly good food. I didn’t want to have made a mistake.
And then it happened. Seven words slipped out of my mouth almost before I knew what I was saying: “I forgive myself for burning the rice.”
That was it. But that was everything. In that moment, I realized that my default setting had changed from shame to self-forgiveness.
True, I said those words of self-forgiveness with some resignation, but I said them. And even more radically, I meant them. For a recovering perfectionist, that was a huge win. (As an added bonus, the rice wasn’t burned after all. There was a tiny bit of water left, just enough to save the whole thing.)
So here’s my question to you: How do you treat yourself when you make a mistake? Do you speak words of self-forgiveness, or are you harsh with yourself and others?
When you learn to forgive yourself, a whole new world opens up.
I’m already hearing the shame-based objection here: Who am I to offer myself forgiveness? Doesn’t that need to come from a Higher Power, from God?
This might sound radical, but if you believe that God is Unconditional Love (which is biblical, by the way), then by definition there is no judgment coming at you from that Love. The definition of unconditional is “absolute; unqualified.” Ergo, there is no room in Unconditional Love for judgment! It’s 100 percent pure Love and 0 percent judgment.
You do not need to ask God for forgiveness because God isn’t actually judging you. God is just doing God’s job, which is to love you completely, radically, and unconditionally.
You, however, have been judging your own sweet self. As such, it makes sense to offer yourself forgiveness. You have the power to judge, and you also have the power to forgive. The choice is yours, moment by moment. Whatever it is that you’re beating yourself up for, you don’t need to do that. You don’t need to hurt yourself anymore. You have suffered long enough. You don’t need to keep stumbling under the weight of your own judgments. You don’t need to do any more penance for the past.
If you’re open to self-forgiveness but you aren’t sure where to start, one place to begin is the deeply uncomfortable feeling I call “weird shame.”
Weird shame is the feeling that you’ve done something wrong—that you are wrong—but you have no idea where it originates. You feel bad, but you’re not sure why.
The key here is to get curious about the weird shame rather than stuff it down. As we talked about earlier, even so-called negative feelings have natural buoyancy; no matter how much we push them down, they’re going to come up eventually. So we might as well work with them.
If you’re game to explore, just sit with the weird shame for a little while. Set a timer for five minutes, and give it some space. Find out what, exactly, you’re judging and shaming yourself for in the first place.
Spoiler alert: you probably will not like sitting with the shame. (And if you’re feeling anxious that it might be too much to take on alone, please reach out to a trusted support person.) Just remember that you do not have to do anything except keep breathing, and look inward when you can. You can take a break whenever you need to; you do not need to rush or force anything. This practice is about creating space for your own truth to rise to the surface.
When you’re ready, ask the questions, “Weird shame, where are you coming from? What are you trying to tell me?”
I did this practice recently, when some weird shame arose after some old friends attended a coaching webinar I’d hosted online.
The source of the weird shame wasn’t immediately obvious because my instinctive reaction to recognizing those friends on the attendee list was joyful.
Yet as soon as I let myself ask that question, “Weird shame, where are you coming from?” the issue became clear.
The friends who showed up to my webinar were people who knew me back in college. They knew me when I tried hard to be Super Christian Caroline, when I believed things that I no longer believe. When I drank too much and hurt myself on purpose. When I had anxiety attacks and shame spirals. When I was, in some ways, lost.
All at once, it made sense: The weird shame wasn’t about my friends at all. It was about my own judgment of Past Caroline.
Instantly, I identified the painful thought: “If people really knew me, they’d turn away.” But the truth was that those friends did know me, and they didn’t turn away. On the contrary, they showed up more than a decade later to attend my webinar!
They didn’t judge me. Only I judged me. Fortunately, I didn’t have to stay in judgment, and neither do you.
THE NO-OWE INVITATION
Offer Yourself Forgiveness—and Mean It
To do self-forgiveness work, first connect with your loving heart. Focus on a deep, true connection; feel it in your heart’s center. One way to do this is to take yourself to an internal place where you feel deeply safe and peaceful. You might imagine a physical space in nature or perhaps holding a pet or a loved one close. Whatever you choose, aim for a felt experience of unconditional love. (If that feels really challenging, it’s OK; just do the best you can. Don’t let perfectionism stop you from doing the rest of the exercise.)
Once you’re grounded in that loving, positive energy, set an intention to heal. You may have different words you want to use, but do speak your words out loud. For example, you might say, “My intention is to heal at the deepest level possible.”
Next, write down your self-judgments and limiting beliefs. Don’t hold back by pretending to be nicer to yourself than you really are. If you judge yourself as selfish, lazy, bad, or horrible, then write that down. If you think you’ll always be bad and you’ll never change, write that down too.
Once you’ve done that, make sure that you’re holding the energy of love as you speak your new truths out loud.
For judgments, use this script: “I forgive myself for judging myself as [fill in the blank], and the truth is [fill in the blank].”
Fill in the first blank with your judgment and the second blank with the truth from the standpoint of unconditional love. Pick words that resonate with your sense of integrity. You do not need to state the opposite of the judgment if that doesn’t feel true for you yet. Instead, go with a statement that actually resonates with you.
Here are some examples from my own life:
- I forgive myself for judging myself as a failure, and the truth is that I’m human, and I’m doing the best that I can.
- I forgive myself for judging myself as broken, and the truth is that I am loved and I am strong.
- I forgive myself for judging myself as a terrible person, and the truth is that I’m just me. And just being me is OK.
For limiting beliefs, use this script: “I forgive myself for accepting the limiting belief that [fill in the blank], and the truth going forward for me is [fill in the blank].” Again, fill in the first blank with your limiting belief and the second blank with the truth from the standpoint of unconditional love. For example,
- I forgive myself for accepting the limiting belief that I’ll never be good enough, and the truth going forward for me is that there is no one holding a scorecard but me, and I can drop it anytime I want to. The truth going forward for me is that I choose to drop the scorecard. I am free, and I choose to enjoy my freedom.
Kindness is a big change. Trust the process. This exercise gives you an accessible way to practice self-compassion, which then overflows into every relationship in your life.
This article is an excerpt from You Don’t Owe Anyone, chapter 5: You Don’t Owe Anyone Your Forgiveness.