Health and Wellness Promotion

The Importance of Self-Forgiveness and Self-Compassion

by Michelle Cheng, '22, HAWP Intern

Whenever I enter into a new school year, I always try to start the school year off “right.” Personally, this means setting goals for myself, which include avoiding procrastinating, staying active, keeping a consistent and adequate sleep schedule, eating balanced meals, and dedicating time to practice self-care. I try to follow these goals as best as I can. However, it is inevitable that there will be days or weeks that I do not make an effort to stay active or that I substitute candy for fruits and vegetables. In times like these, I am overly self-critical. While it is good to recognize our faults and shortcomings and to want to engage in self-improvement, constantly judging and condemning ourselves can ultimately do more harm than good. It is hard to maintain the healthy mindset needed to achieve our goals if we are not kind to ourselves. 

Self-compassion is a form of self care, and self-forgiveness is a necessary step to support our wellness as we strive to achieve our goals.

In my personal experience, when I have not been taking good care of myself, I feel stressed. If I procrastinate on an important task and spend the entire day watching movies, I feel overwhelmed the next day. Not only do I have more work to do, I feel frustrated knowing that I was “wasting my time” when I could have been productive. I know that taking time off from work and doing something fun is not always a waste of time, but it is hard to reconcile that knowledge with the culture of non-stop productivity that we currently live in, especially as college students. The stress that I am not being 100% productive or that I did not eat healthily for the past week or that I had not been active in a long time builds up. I get angry and self-critical to the point where it is ultimately counterproductive and adds onto the stress. I’ve had to learn how to be more forgiving towards myself and allow myself the opportunity to let go of tension so that I can move forward.

Dr. Kristin Neff, who studies self-compassion, said, “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” We tend to be harder on ourselves than we are on other people. In situations when I do start to get overly self-critical, I try to take a step back and extend the same kindness to myself as I would to a friend in a similar situation. Would I be resentful towards a friend for procrastinating? Would I be annoyed with a friend who went to sleep late? No, I wouldn't. Therefore, I should not hold the same resentment towards myself. 

Self-forgiveness, however, is not about ignoring accountability. To me, self-forgiveness is a way to hold myself accountable while understanding that I will fall short of my own expectations and goals sometimes. This allows me to shake it off and keep moving instead of getting stuck in a cycle of self-criticism.

Practicing self-compassion and self-forgiveness can be difficult at first since we are always told to push ourselves to achieve our goals and be better. In the long-term, yes, it is important to try to identify a goal or a lifestyle to strive for, but in order to maintain our own happiness and motivation, we must learn how to extend compassion and kindness to ourselves. Here are some strategies that help me practice self-compassion and self-forgiveness.

  • Talk to a friend, a family member, or anyone in your support system — Talking to a friend can help us feel happier and relieve stress. Talking to our support system will relieve stress and tension, and we will also likely receive the kindness and support that we deserve.

  • Journal — Journaling allows us to look into ourselves and vocalize our feelings. When we do this, we are more mindful of how we are feeling. We can be more aware of and think about how our mindset either antagonizes or supports our own well-being and decide how to move forward to ensure that we develop a healthy and compassionate view of ourselves.

  • Keep a manageable to-do list — Start by listing only a few items that are at the top of your priority list. Once you check those items off your list, you can add more. A list with too many items can be overwhelming or unrealistic 

  • Engage with your creative side — I find that when I do any sort of art when I’m feeling stressed, whether that be painting or drawing or just doodling, I feel more relaxed afterwards. Even just listening to music and creating playlists helps me to feel less stressed. Engaging with our creative side in any way that is enjoyable to us can help us feel more connected and content with ourselves.

  • Write down some of your favorite quotes — Write down some of your favorite quotes in a journal or keep them in a document on your laptop or phone. I like to keep a book of quotes that, at one point or another, have made me feel good, laugh, think introspectively, or feel inspired. Reading back these quotes can remind us to be kind and compassionate to ourselves and allow us to feel good and to laugh.

As important as it is to strive for improvement and hold ourselves accountable, it is equally important to learn how to forgive and care for ourselves in a way that will support us and our wellness in the long term.

Learn more about self-compassion

Visit the HAWP Virtual Resources page for additional resources related to self-compassion, mindfulness, and other wellness topics.