We've all done things we're not proud of. Maybe you spent half the month's food budget on a new coat, didn't get to your son's soccer match before the second half, put your mum in a nursing home, or, when the cat's yowling got on your nerves, you let him outside where he promptly ran away.

It's tough to forgive yourself, and you may think your friends and family would never forgive you either if they knew half of what you do. Unfortunately, you know the whole. And the sheer weight of it rocks you with guilt and sinks you with shame. Probably one of the few people who can tell you how to forgive yourself is psychologist Dr Fred Luskin. For years, Luskin has conducted studies and workshops on forgiveness, working with men who've cheated on their wives, kids who've dumped their parents, and a whole lot worse.

But the biggest obstacle to self-forgiveness is our tendency to wallow in our own guilt, he told Prevention. "It's not just that we feel bad because we know we've done wrong," Luskin explains. Everybody does that. But some of us actually draw those bad feelings around ourselves like a blanket, cover our heads, and refuse to stop the wailing.

If that sounds nuts to you, you're not alone. But some of us try to use those bad feelings like a talisman to ward off the consequences of our actions, says Luskin. We curl up in a ball and say, "Hey! Look how bad I feel! See how I'm suffering! I'm pitiful! I'm pathetic! I can't be punished any more than this; it wouldn't be fair!"

"It's a crazy form of penance," adds Luskin. Instead of taking responsibility for what we've done by trying to repair the damage or make things right, many of us unconsciously decide to punish ourselves by feeling miserable for the rest of our lives.

The long-term health effects of guilt

Unfortunately, the decision to feel miserable for the rest of your life can have tragic consequences. And not always in obvious ways. For one thing, misery loves company. "If you keep beating yourself up, then the person who tries to love you is going to get beat up, too," explains Luskin. It's inevitable. Anyone who's wallowing in guilt is going to be more withdrawn, more critical, and less open than they normally would. So whoever's around - your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, even your dog - is going to suffer right along with you.

But the suffering doesn't stop with those around you. Mind affects body in a zillion interconnecting ways, and those guilty feelings you're nurturing are generating chemicals that are headed straight for your vital organs. They increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, disrupt your digestion, tense your muscles, dump cholesterol into your bloodstream, and reduce your ability to think straight. And every time you remember what you did and wince, those bad feelings give you a fresh hit of corrosive chemicals.

It's no wonder that studies on forgiveness have led scientists to suspect that those who have difficulty forgiving are more likely to experience heart attacks, high blood pressure, depression, and other ills.

"Forgiveness is a tool with which we face what we've done in the past, acknowledge our mistakes, and move on. It does not mean that you condone or excuse what happened. It does not mean that you forget," says Luskin. "There's a season for our suffering and regret. We have to have that. But the season ends; the world moves on. And we need to move on with it."

Here are 12 ways to find self-forgiveness—no matter what you've done.

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