This Study Confirms How Important Forgiveness Is. Here's How To Do It

Photo: Timo Stern

Forgiveness isn't always easy: If someone has hurt you, you may carry feelings of anger and bitterness for a long time. And forgiving yourself for hurting someone else can be even harder. But the truth is, it's important. A recent study found that in most age groups, the ability to forgive is associated with greater life satisfaction overall.

The first step depends on being able to open to the hurt caused, whether to us—or by us. The truth is, sometimes we cause pain in life without intending it. An example is when we move across the country to start a new life, leaving friends and family behind, or when we can't give our elderly parents the attention they need because of our work situation. This kind of pain is not the fault of anyone, but it can still be acknowledged and healed with self-compassion.

The capacity to forgive requires keen awareness of our common humanity. We are all imperfect beings whose actions stem from a web of interdependent conditions that are much larger than ourselves. In other words, we don't have to take our mistakes so personally. Paradoxically, this understanding helps us to take more responsibility for our actions because we feel more emotionally secure.

One study asked participants to recall a recent action they felt guilty about—such as cheating on an exam, lying to a romantic partner, or saying something harmful—that still made them feel bad about themselves when they thought about it. The researchers found that participants who were helped to be self-compassionate about their transgression reported being more motivated to apologize for the harm done and more committed to not repeating the behavior than those who were not helped to be self-compassionate.

To get started on forgiving yourself, give this mindfulness exercise a try.

Here are the five steps of forgiveness:

  1. Opening to pain, or being present with the distress of what happened.
  2. Self-compassion, or allowing our hearts to melt with sympathy for the pain, no matter what caused it.
  3. Wisdom, or beginning to recognize that the situation wasn't entirely personal but was the consequence of many interdependent causes and conditions.
  4. Intention to forgive, or being able to say, "May I begin to forgive myself for what I did, wittingly or unwittingly, to have caused them pain."
  5. Responsibility to protect, or committing ourselves to not repeating the same mistake; to stay out of harm's way, to the best of our ability.

Now, take two or three deep breaths and close your eyes for a few moments to settle and center yourself. Put your hands on your heart or use some other soothing touch as a gesture of support and self-kindness. Think of a person whom you have caused pain, and think of a specific event that occurred in the relationship that you regret and would like to forgive yourself for. Choose a relatively easy situation for the first time you do this exercise, perhaps a three on a scale of one to 10. Take your time to find the right situation to work with.

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Opening to the pain.

Take a few moments to consider how your actions affected the other person, and allow yourself to feel the guilt and remorse that naturally arise when we cause someone pain. This may take some courage. It can help to let yourself feel the body sensations associated with guilt, making space for the physical sensations in your body.

Self-compassion.

If you feel you acted wrongly, recognize that it is part of being human to make mistakes; guilt is part of the human experience. Offer yourself compassion for how you've suffered, perhaps by saying, "May I be kind to myself. May I accept myself as I am." If you'd like, put a hand on your heart and allow kindness to flow through your fingers into your body. If it feels like you need to stay here for a while, please do so. There is no need to go further.

Wisdom.

When you are ready, try to understand what led to your mistake. Take a moment to consider whether any environmental factors were affecting you at the time. For instance, were you under a lot of stress? Or were certain aspects of your personality triggered in an irrational way—old buttons pushed? Take a moment to look beyond yourself and your personal interpretation of this situation. Or maybe you didn't actually make a mistake and were just trying to live your life the best way you knew how.

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Intention to forgive.

Now see if you can offer forgiveness to yourself, saying the phrase "May I begin to forgive myself for what I have done, wittingly or unwittingly, that caused this person pain."

Responsibility to protect.

If it feels right, resolve not to hurt anyone in this manner again, at least to the best of your ability.

Reflection.

It takes special courage to open to the feelings of guilt and remorse that arise when we realize we have hurt someone. But the more we can hold these uncomfortable feelings with compassion, the stronger will be our resolve to avoid repeating our mistakes. Genuine self-forgiveness is a precursor to effective change.

Based on excerpts from The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook by Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press. Copyright © 2018.

Working on forgiveness? Here's how to forgive when it seems impossible.

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