10 Steps to Self-Forgiveness

August 16, 2012

As we’ve been discussing, when we don’t generate a sense of completion when we come up short of our intent/goals but need to stop working, we will go looking for completion in all the wrong places.

That lack of completion can also leave us and our work haunted by a lot of ghosts – the pain of unfinished business.

Even when we do our best to minimize the creation of ghosts, we still need a way to deal with the ones that do show up. We need a way to help them cross over.

And since Ghosts are just past moments of disappointment in ourselves, resolving unfinished business is about self-forgiveness.

helping your ghosts cross over

There is a lot of information out there about forgiveness – more specifically, about forgiving others. There is much less guidance available about forgiving yourself.

The difference matters. Forgiving another doesn’t require reconciliation, but you’re stuck with you. You have to come away from this process still being able to live with yourself. What follows is the most simple and effective process I’ve come across so far for doing just that.

You’ll also see how I’ve begun to make this process my own by incorporating what I’ve learned from other teachers and guides. That’s the hidden lesson here: always experiment with and adapt what you are learning to your own situation and world-view. Integrate new techniques with those you already know and love. Add what seems to be missing and remove what doesn’t work for you. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions and tailoring is an essential skill.

While the process outlined below is primarily the work of Rick Hanson, it also includes what I’ve learned about conditions of satisfaction from Molly Gordon and Jennifer Louden, and container-making from Susan Piver.

And it’s an outline because a) otherwise this article would be a mile longer than it already is and b) these approaches deserve to be read in full and in context, in their creators’ own words. So click those links, okay?

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You could just jump into this process, but it will probably go better if you give a little attention to crafting a supportive container for it before you begin.

You’re probably already aware of the what and why of doing this – what you are seeking forgiveness for and why you need it – the Clarity and Love elements of your container.

Beyond those, be intentional about where and when/how long you will do this – the Environment and Time elements of your container.

Also, be intentional about whether you do this in solitude or in company – the Connection element of your container – as well as how you will support yourself physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally in this process – the Energy element of your container.

With those basic supports in place, enter the process outlined below (in a form adapted to your needs and world-view, of course).

1. Make offerings.

While everything is sacred, there is something about self-forgiveness that seems especially so. Maybe because it involves grace and calling on a higher, deeper power. It deserves and requires sacred space. And the best way I know to enter sacred space is to begin as Susan Piver would by making offerings and asking blessing.

Make offerings by bringing one or more items into the little shrine that is this sacred space which embody the qualities you want from this process – e.g., a candle for illumination and warmth, water for flow and cleansing, seeds or plants for a new beginning, a photograph of someone who loves you for acceptance or someone you admire for guidance, etc.

Beyond these physical offerings, Susan would remind us, “…the best offering is one you can always make, no matter where you are or how you feel, and that is your own experience in the moment.” Offer whatever you are feeling, “…by saying something like, ‘I offer exactly who I am right now to the highest wisdom and goodness I can imagine.’ You don’t have to know exactly what this means, just rouse a sense of generosity.”

In this container of self-forgiveness, do not confuse this sense of generosity with reparation – that’s not what you’re offering upon entry into this space. How you choose to atone comes later in the process.

2. Request blessing.

Despite what your guilt or shame may suggest, it’s okay to ask for favor and protection in this process. Having offered yourself as you are in this moment, ask that same wisdom and goodness – what Susan would describe as your lineage – for blessing.

3. Get in touch with feeling cared for.

By making offerings and asking blessing, you’ve already begun the first step of self-forgiveness: invoking the sense of feeling cared for by some being that knows and loves you. That could be a friend or family member, a teacher or mentor, a pet, or a spiritual being.

4. Acknowledge your good qualities.

Having made a mistake doesn’t negate your many beautiful, honorable and valuable qualities. While staying with that feeling of being cared for, list some of them.

5. Acknowledge what happened.

As factually and objectively as you can, acknowledge what you did (or didn’t do), the context in which that happened: what was in your mind at the time and the circumstances and history of the situation, and the results of your actions for yourself and others. Important: note what was in your control and what was beyond your control, from aspects of the circumstances to other people’s reactions.

6. Discern what happened.

Sort your actions and choices into moral faults and lack of skill. (Rick Hanson adds an “everything else” category which I’ve yet to use. If it’s something within your control, I believe the error of your ways falls into one of the first two.)

Making this distinction is important because while an ethical breach warrants proportionate remorse, lack of skill requires nothing more than correction.

In my experience of doing this exercise myself and with clients, what happened is almost always the result of a lack of know-how. And even in the rare instance of moral failing, that’s still the just the result of not fully understanding how to live your values. Most of us are beating ourselves up with guilt and shame when all we really need is a little education.

7. Take responsibility for your part.

[ Lost that sense of feeling cared for? Take a moment to get it back before you continue. ]

Write or say, “I am responsible for _____ , _____ , and _____.”

Then write or say, “But I am NOT responsible for _____ , _____ , and _____.”

Let yourself feel it. Allow both of these truths to sink in.

Acknowledge what you have already done to make amends and learn from this experience – to finish your unfinished business.

If anything still needs to be done, decide what that is. And be specific. This is where Conditions of Satisfaction or Enoughness come in. Guilt and shame can become bottomless pits unless you clearly define what will make things right again.

As always, your plan needs to be:

- stated in plain facts and easy to understand (K.I.S.S.!)
- measurable
- time-specific
- within your control

Say or do what has gone unsaid or undone. Answer the unanswered questions. Right any wrongs. Do what you need to do to let your ghosts know you will be okay without them once they cross over.

And as Jen Louden would remind us: “Declare you are satisfied when your conditions are met – even if you don’t feel satisfied.”

Because even when you have learned what needed to be learned and done what needed to be done, residual guilt and shame may nag at you to do more. Resist it. Rewrite the pattern. Practice satisfaction. Invoke that same sense of completion we’ve been talking about all along in this series.

8. Forgive yourself.

Even if there is still something you need to do to complete your unfinished business, close this exercise by actively forgiving yourself based on what you’ve done so far.

Say or write: “I forgive myself for _____ , _____ , and _____. I have taken responsibility and done what I could to make things better.”

Or: “I forgive myself for _____, _____, and _____. I am taking responsibility and am doing what I can to make things better.”

If you need to repeat this process later, that’s okay. Not all ghosts immediately gravitate toward that white light. As long as you stay in completion and satisfaction, sooner or later they will cross over.

9. Dedicate the merit.

How you exit this sacred space matters as much as how you enter it. Stick your landing by doing what Susan Piver calls dedicating the merit.

“Connect with whatever benefit you may have created for yourself through undertaking this practice. Once you have this felt sense, give it away. In whatever way feels natural for you, make the aspiration that the results of your practice could be used to also benefit others. This is very important. My beloved teacher, Sakyong Mipham, says that not dedicating the merit is like not hitting the ‘save’ button on your word doc before shutting down.”

As Rick Hanson suggests, help the experience of forgiveness “sink in by opening up to it in your body and heart, and by reflecting on how it will help others for you to stop beating yourself up.”

This step is as essential to helping your ghosts cross over as any other step in this process.

As always, follow this step with some celebration and recovery that acknowledges what you’ve just accomplished.

10. Get on with things.

Now that you are feeling lighter and less burdened or haunted by the past, now that you have returned to the present, now that you have greater clarity – get back to doing what you were doing when your ghosts first showed up.

Get back to rocking your genius.

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Give this a try and let me know what happens, and how you’ve made the process your own in the comments.

• • • • •

Organized under energy/how.

2 responses

  1. Cairene, even reading this opens spaces in me. It’s more than about goals; it’s about how all intentions affect all results. Bless you.


  2. 714 days ago,
    Cairene said:

    @Laureen – Yes! and thanks. :)