Tips for Letting Go of Past Mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes—it’s part of what makes us human. But when we can’t forgive ourselves for past mistakes, they can interfere with daily life, leading to low self-esteem, guilt and shame, and other mental health issues.
In high-stakes situations, people may witness injurious events that contradict with their moral beliefs. Moral injury refers to an injury to an individual’s moral beliefs and values after an act of perceived moral transgression, which produces profound feelings of guilt, shame, and regret. Moral injuries can lead to a sense of betrayal, disgust, remorse, and moral distress.
Unlike post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by long-term fear, moral injuries involve a sense of alienation from deeply held moral values following an injurious experience. First responders, health care providers, military veterans, and military service members are particularly vulnerable to moral injury.
Past mistakes and moral injuries can negatively influence our mood, close relationships, and mental health. Learning to let go of mistakes is the first step to moving on.
Surround yourself with support.
Although it might be intimidating, opening up to a close friend or family member can help you let go of mistakes. According to a review on resiliency following PTSD, staying in contact and disclosing trauma to loved ones can help prevent long-term suffering. While your loved ones may not fully understand your experience, they can provide empathy and compassion in their willingness to listen.
If you feel uncomfortable opening up about a traumatic event to your loved ones, consider joining a support group, or seeking professional help. Support groups allow individuals who are trying to let go of past mistakes, or those with PTSD or moral injury to share similar experiences, build resilience, and combat feelings of isolation. Group therapy helps reduce feelings of shame, helplessness, and remorse, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
When reflecting on past mistakes, you might feel embarrassment and guilt for your actions. Making amends is part of the healing process—reflecting on and apologizing for your actions allows you to seek forgiveness from others and work toward self-forgiveness.
In some situations, making amends is easy—you apologize and make reparations to the person you’ve hurt. For example, if you said something that hurt a friend, you can apologize the next time you see them.
Sometimes, making amends can be more difficult, and it can be impossible to undo the damage. For instance, if you ignored a homeless person in need of help on your way home, you probably won’t be able to find the same person again. In this case, making amends might involve helping others in similar situations.
You are worthy of forgiveness. If a close friend or family member made a similar mistake, you would forgive them. If you’re struggling with low self-esteem, you might beat yourself up over the smallest mistake instead of forgiving yourself or asking for forgiveness and empathy from others.
Feelings of guilt are not always rational, but they are a recognized response to a traumatic event or a moral injury. Allow yourself to feel guilt and take the time to process negative emotions. Ultimately, permitting yourself to accept forgiveness and to have compassion for yourself is the only way to move forward.
Seek professional help.
Whether you’re struggling to let go of past mistakes or coping with a moral injury, seeking professional help may seem daunting. Often, moral injury can lead people to believe that they do not deserve to feel better, which means that they may delay or refuse professional help.
When guilt, shame, and negative emotions become overwhelming, seeking professional help can jumpstart your healing process by helping you cope with painful memories and practice mindfulness.
Some common types of therapy used to treat moral injury include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Cognitive-behavioral therapy is an effective treatment for a wide range of mental health issues, including posttraumatic stress disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, social anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder, according to the American Psychological Association. As a form of psychotherapy, CBT helps people identify and challenge negative thoughts and behaviors. During your first session, your mental health professional will help you set mental health goals and determine the best way to move forward on your journey to self-forgiveness.
- Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT): When we feel negative emotions, it’s normal to avoid them. However, while avoidance might work as a short-term coping mechanism, it usually doesn’t work well for a long time, and trying to escape negative thoughts and feelings often leads to mental disorders. As a behavioral talk therapy, ACT focuses on accepting painful thoughts and emotions by recognizing that avoidance does not work, viewing yourself as separate from your thoughts, and committing to action.
- Exposure therapy: After bearing witness to a traumatic event, a person may begin to adopt behaviors to avoid threatening situations to avoid the traumatic experience from happening again. As a type of CBT, exposure therapy targets learned behaviors, such as avoidance, in response to anxiety-provoking situations or thoughts. Exposure therapy is an effective treatment for traumatic stress disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
If you’re having thoughts of suicide or self-destructive behaviors—such as substance abuse—to cope with feelings of shame and guilt, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or the NAMI Helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI for immediate support.
Finding the Right Therapist
Before starting your search for a therapist, it can be helpful to research different types of therapists:
- Psychologists have a PhD or PsyD and are trained to provide psychotherapy (talk therapy) services, including individual therapy and group therapy.
- Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) usually hold a master’s degree and are trained to provide psychotherapy and counseling services.
- Licensed professional counselors (LPCs) are trained to offer psychotherapy. An LPC typically utilizes a treatment approach similar to a social worker.
- Psychiatrists hold medical degrees and prescribe medication to treat mental health issues.
- Licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFTs) hold a master’s degree and are trained to provide couples therapy and family therapy.
Because the success of your treatment depends on the quality of your therapeutic relationship, it’s essential to find a therapist you feel comfortable opening up to about your personal experiences and mistakes. A good therapist will be accepting, nonjudgmental, and empathetic. To make the best decision, make sure to consider each potential therapist’s credentials and specialization.
We’re all human beings, and making mistakes is normal. At the Therapy Group of NYC, we know how difficult it can be to live with feelings of shame and guilt. Regardless of your personal preferences and requirements, we’ll help you find the best therapist for your specific mental health needs. One of our qualified mental health providers will help you gain insight into your mental health, become a better person, and live in the present moment.