These statements are mixed together in our psyche, and getting them straight is the key to forgiving yourself. Doing a bad thing is not the same as being a bad person. Imagine a small child who is caught taking cookies from the cookie jar, and her mother scolds her. If the child is young enough, she can't separate "I did a bad thing" from "I am bad." And since the one who is making her feel guilty is her mother, the guilt that results comes with absolute authority. (This is one reason some psychologists claim that the gods and goddesses are actually stand-ins for our parents—they make us feel small, weak and vulnerable by comparison.)
As an adult, let's say you do something that by your standards is a guilty action. You cheated on your income tax or on your spouse; you faked a job resume or got a good friend into trouble. You can't forgive yourself by simply putting the bad action in proportion and moving on.
So what to do? The most effective ways to rid yourself of guilt are the following:
1. Confess to an authority figure and ask for their forgiveness.
2. Perform an act of atonement.
3. Pray for divine forgiveness.
4. Perform a ritual of contrition and appeasement.
It's often pointed out how psychologically effective the Catholic confessional proves to be (all four approaches to erasing guilt are included). But the effectiveness of these steps diminishes if you don't have deep faith. Even if you have no religious faith at all, the key to forgiving yourself remains the same: You must believe that you have been forgiven.
In most cases, living with guilt is far worse than going to the person you have wronged, confessing your misdeed and asking to be forgiven. Even if they say no, you have brought your guilty secret to light, and that's a major step.
1. Write a letter confessing your secret. Include every detail. Take your time to make sure that you have left nothing out. When you are certain that the letter is complete, perform a ritual where you burn the letter or consign it to the sea—anything that will totally obliterate it. As you do this, say, "I put my guilt behind me. Now it belongs to God (or the universe)." Repeat this ritual several times, as needed. You may not completely absolve yourself, but you will be bringing your guilt to the light, which is the only place where healing psychological scars can occur.
2. Put your misdeed on someone else's shoulders, imagining that the guilt isn't yours. Now sit in judgment. Write out in detail what punishment this person deserves, and at the same time include reasons for mercy. Consider the balance between punishment and forgiveness. Most guilty people will be much more lenient on someone else than on themselves. This exercise gives you a perspective on your guilty feelings.
3. Adopt a mantra that you say to yourself the moment that a guilty memory or feeling arises. The following phrases are particularly effective: "I'm not that person anymore;" or "My attention belongs in the present;" or "I am not here to suffer anymore." Choose the appropriate phrase and repeat it, without fail, every time you feel guilty. In this way, you are not only telling yourself the truth, for you aren't the person anymore who committed a past misdeed, but you are also giving your brain a new, more positive input. This will help to wean it off the old wiring that keeps messaging guilt long after guilt is deserved.
No matter how big or small your guilty secret, no matter if your guilt is nagging or crushing, the goal is always the same. Do whatever it takes until you truly believe that you have been forgiven.