Forgiveness is not something you do for someone else. It is something you do for yourself. An unforgiven injury binds you to a time and place someone else has chosen; it holds you trapped in a past moment and in old feelings.
It seems like one of life’s greatest challenges to forgive yourself, and often forgiving others falls into place when you forgive yourself because hostility towards others is often just unresolved self loathing in disguise. The incredible liberation you experience when you begin to forgive yourself is like a fog of bitterness that lifts. You see yourself, others and life more clearly and with greater compassion.
Forgiveness is an issue we all deal with in different ways. Maybe we are reminded of situations where we didn’t listen to our intuition and take action. This brings with it a heavy load of guilt. Others may need to forgive themselves for staying in abusive relationships for too long, or making choices that diminished your humanity. Most of us are haunted by something we wish we had done, or knew we should have done, and healing begins with forgiving yourself.
When I was in kindergarten I left the classroom one day to go to the bathroom. When I got there, I found my best friend, David, sitting on a stranger’s lap in the cubicle. I ran in terror back to the classroom and didn’t tell anyone what I’d seen. I was frozen in fear. Eventually word filtered around the room that David was missing, and I finally told the teacher what I had seen. Nothing else was ever said about it, and I never knew what happened to my friend. But my inability to immediately tell the teacher plagued me for years.
What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I speak up? It was my fault if David was hurt. I had made myself the perpetrator and bound myself for years to that time and old feeling. My self loathing wasn’t helping anyone, least of all myself. But I couldn’t move beyond it for years.
I noticed 5 steps that eventually helped to liberate me so I could move on.
Step One: Accept What Was
I couldn’t control the actions of the man, nor my friend. Whatever happened, happened, however devastating. I certainly can’t change what happened, and I can’t change what I did and didn’t do. Wishing it were otherwise now is a futile battle with reality and memory. The starting point is ACCEPTANCE.
Step Two: Reframe the Memory
I am left with a frame in my mind, a snapshot of something that happened a long time ago. My frame on the experience was laced with guilt for many years. Once I accepted the reality of whatever happened, I started to reframe it. My new frame was full of compassion (for myself). I was 5 years old, confused and terrified. I was also an innocent victim of the situation. My new frame is compassion; for myself, I did all I could do at that time, for my friend, he has lived with what happened to him, and even for the perpetrator. You can’t abuse kids without being very damaged yourself. It doesn’t excuse bad behavior or lack of self control, but it is a frame that enables me to move on.
Step Three: Visualize Forgiveness
This is a brief summary of a visualization I have spent many hours working on. In meditation, I focus on myself as a five year old. I surround myself with protective energy. I create safe space to heal within. I imagine myself embracing myself as a shocked five year old. I give the same love and care to the boy that I give to my own children when they are scared. Forgiveness grows when you visualize compassion.
Step Four: Let go of guilt.
With my new frame on the experience, and my visualization of compassion, I learnt to let go of guilt. I don’t have to live my friend’s karma, and I don’t have to suffer the abuser’s karma. I release myself from responsibility for what happened to either of them. I also release myself from responsibility for choices I made as a very young child in shock. I don’t need to punish myself any longer.
Step Five: Choose to Respond Differently
Freed from guilt, I can choose to respond differently now. I have had several opportunities to speak up for victims of abuse in my adult life. I have taken each one of them with determination. I chose to learn from the experience, and pledged to be a voice for those who lost their voices as victims of abuse. It’s now a major part of my life to support people in healing and transformation, through writing, speaking and coaching.
The steps to self forgiveness are not always neat and tidy. We move back and forth between guilt and forgiveness, hopefully adding a little more gentleness to our frame each time we do the hard work of self forgiveness.
In the end, it all comes down to what sort of world you choose to dwell in. I imagine a world where children are fiercely protected and people are mindful of the effect of their actions.
I love the ritual among the Masai tribes of African. Even though they were considered the most fearsome of all warriors, they use a greeting that is amazingly gentle. They greet each other with the words, “Kasserian ingera?’ which means “How are the children?” Even warriors with no children of their own would give the answer, ‘All the children are well.”
If the children are well, it is well with all. If the least visible and least powerful are well cared for, society as a whole is in a healthy state. Start by caring for the vulnerable child within who needs to be empowered with courage to heal from past choices and move on making powerful choices. Ask yourself often, “How is the child within?” May your answer be, “The child within is well.”
Forgiveness can’t change the past, but it changes the present in a mighty way. Forgiveness is the way of the peaceful warrior. It fills your present with peace, and enlarges the future for you and others.