Forgiveness- five steps through mindful self-compassion

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“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”

Miller Williams

I have some thoughts about, and am deeply moved and inspired by this quote from Miller Williams – which for me sums up a truth about every human soul that is worth considering when we are full of fear, anxiety, judgment, anger, and more with some of our most disconcerting interactions with others.

There are many beautiful moments that I hold the precious space for in my clinical practice and bear privileged witness to – where courageous people turn towards their suffering and open their hearts to rebuild and reconnect with their most important life relationships. This reminds me of the fragility of the human heart and human relationships. We all come into this world to love and be loved and yet so often this is never communicated fully and disconnect happens in so many of our closest relationships – and time is short.

In addressing the topic of forgiveness as part of my mindful self-compassion practice, and as a topic which is included in The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook  I have considered some essential steps we can take towards forgiveness of self and others – regardless of how far from resolution and agreement we may be.
I knew that to write authentically and honestly and give this topic the attention it deserves would require a period of self- reflection and mindful meditation, some quiet time,  and much further research – to that end I have spent the summer reflecting on what forgiveness means to me and how it enables me to live a fulfilled and peaceful life, alongside family, friends, clients, programme and retreat participants, and colleagues whom I care about dearly and have deep respect for.

I have come across a number of really helpful articles and studies so, I am putting some links here to those articles for you to explore below.

For me, forgiveness is an important aspect of resilience and connects us all in ‘common humanity’ -this is the theme of one of two day retreats I now offer on emotional resilience, and which has recently been well-received.

Here are some reflections on forgiveness and common humanity from the participants who attended the Forgiveness day retreat:

I enjoyed most: “The chance to discuss with others and to hear their experiences”

“Sharing the day with others who showed that I am not alone in my struggles- it helps greatly”

“…particularly being made aware that this is a deep subject which I probably avoid confronting, and this certainly helped”

I came across an article by Beat Souders recently on why forgiveness is important , which I think you may find interesting also. Especially interesting is Kristin Neff’s article Here concerning a recent study which underlines the importance of forgiveness  that I think you will also find useful. And, here Rick Hanson offers some tips based on the importance of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is a big topic, and something that, as human social beings we often wrestle with. It isn’t easy to forgive when we are feeling hurt, upset, angry, unloved- all feelings that are valid and important, to be recognised as a first step towards reconnecting when there is a disconnect -especially with those we love.

I have been studying forgiveness for a long while now, as part of the mindful self-compassion practice I follow and teach. A few thoughts came to mind recently as I was preparing for my first day retreat devoted to this important topic.

After giving much thought to this, I have found there are steps we can take to make things easier, moving forward, and Kristin Neff’s definition of mindful self-compassion is a helpful starting point:

“Self-kindness v self- judgement

Common Humanity v Isolation

Mindfulness v over-identification”

I have shaped these steps into five steps through mindful self-compassion


Step one

Recognise and acknowledge the feelings you have and label them – this is mindful, rather than feeding into an endless narrative loop of who said what, what went wrong, justification of our position, replaying events over and over, ruminating and worrying relentlessly about what comes next. If we continue to feed into this loop and do not recognise, validate, and address the feelings we have, we risk experiencing deep and lasting physical  and emotional pain.

If once you have labelled the strong emotion, you focus on the emotion you feel in the moment. Rather than the story you replay and add to, you are more able to bring it under control and free yourself from the ‘eternal loop’. This, in time, and with practice, enables you to live fully and more peacefully in the present moment. As the saying goes “when you name it you tame it”. In the mindful self-compassion programme we have a meditation practice which is helpful and it’s called “labelling emotions” – you can listen and download this meditation and others for free from Chris Germer, Kristin Neff- the founders of the mindful self- compassion programme, and the Centre for Mindful self-compassion   here, here, and here

Step Two

Meet yourself with compassion –once you have ‘named’ the strongest emotion and paid attention to it – see where you can feel it in your body. Emotions tend to linger in the body whereas thoughts are more fleeting. ‘Soften soothe and allow’ is a good meditation to work with and can help you tolerate the difficult emotion rather than feeding it and allowing it to grow out of proportion.

Step Three

Find some positive memories that you share with the person you are wanting to ‘forgive’ – that includes yourself for your part in the disconnect.

When you have practiced step 1 and 2, step 3 becomes easier. When recalling positive memories, Gratitude and appreciation practices are proven to build emotional resilience and help us enjoy life, moving through life’s challenges to recover more easily. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson writes and teaches extensively on resilience, and I can highly recommend all of his books- including ‘Hardwiring happiness’, and more recently, ‘Resilient’.

Step Four

Common Humanity v isolation –Empathy and compassion come when we recognise that as humans, we all want to be loved, that we all make mistakes, that from time to time, we all suffer. Equally, for the most part, we can all feel love. Knowing this can help us to reconnect with those we love and rebuild relationships – it takes time, and each situation is different.

If we focus on where we feel we ‘went wrong’ or beat ourselves up for not standing our ground more forcefully, then self-compassion rather than self-criticism is important. Quite often I have found, that when someone doesn’t apologise it can be that they feel deep shame and that is too hard to face and acknowledge, so rather, the apology is not forthcoming, or may be disguised in other words or expressions of remorse, that with compassion and empathy, we are more able to recognise within ourselves and others. This is especially so if we start to realise that in some way we have a responsibility in each situation and relationship.

The Dalai Lama talks about the problems we create for ourselves if we don’t let go of anger and harbour grudges- these  “corrode the vessels that contain them”.

Step Five

Moving towards reconciliation-It may well be that we never agree on differing points of view, but we can agree to recognise the value of a relationship- if it didn’t matter-then the feelings would not be so strong!

We can begin to contemplate what outcome we would actually want and what the best outcome could be. We may not achieve this straight away or at all-,but we can set an intention to heal rather than continue to hurt. This enables us to continue more fruitfully and creatively with living our lives to the full.

Sometimes, as in divorce, relationships can break down beyond repair, so the most compassionate way forward for all concerned is to separate.

At work we may meet people who have very different life experience, beliefs, views, and values to those of our own and when we are under stress, we all respond differently. So, mindful and compassionate communication can be helpful in resolving conflict and help to bring about resolution so that we can work together more effectively and comfortably.

So, I close with the words I began with, as a reminder that we are all human and that we all suffer, and compassion is the key to helping us find our way to forgive.

“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit, bad manners, or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”

Miller Williams