Cultivating Self-Compassion as a Path to Forgiveness

Reduce anxiety and depression with self-compassion

Self-Compassion as an Alternative to Revenge

Self-Compassion sounds like a roundabout way to forgiveness, but it’s usually reactivity from within that blocks any such notion.  Resentment, revenge and silence often appear to be more comforting resolutions. 

What Relational Wounds Take From Us
It’s often the case that our deepest emotional wounds come from those closest to us.  What if it were possible to maintain a relationship with someone who hurt you in the past without compromising your well-being?  What if you might forgive someone and still feel a sense of peace and safety?  Imagine all the hours, days, weeks and years spent ruminating on past wounds.  Reflecting on the hurt and wrongs.  Time lost in bed.  Time lost moving slowly with heaviness.   Secondary wounds created through anger targeted at those in our circle of intimacy.  Aches, pains and stress created from internalized tension and suppression.  It goes on and on.  What if we could move through this?  

slow down and notice

Self-Compassion as a Source of Strength

Mixing up our Strengths and Weaknesses
But what about the injustice, you say? Self-compassion, often feels like weakness and giving up for some.  For many, it results in feelings of shame or self-pity.  We simply don’t know how to sit in this space.  If things go awry, we go back to feeling helpless.   And the anger and rumination starts anew.

The First Steps of Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is a way to break free of this cycle and it takes making a closer examination of our alternative behaviors.  First, it helps to practice taking an “observer” stance in which we create distance between the unpleasant sensations associated with our painful recall of wounds and afflictions by those we regarded as intimates.  In your sessions, we might refer to this as “mindfulness.” One of the key aspects of this state is to just “be.” Notice what you are doing. Notice your thoughts. Notice your body reactions. You just notice.  You don’t need to engage, do anything, judge, or resist.  You can just “be.” This is hard to do when we’ve been relying on “fixing” and “busyness” as a form of distraction or fleeting way to satisfy emptiness.  Incidentally, this is where “productivity” and the endless accomplishment train can twist into our biggest perpetuator of suffering. We never really resolve that deep pit in our bellies. We just distract with one “carrot” replacing another. 

“Self-Compassion is about YOU.  Start by noticing you.  You cannot dismiss what is going on in your body as part of that process.”

Reality Checking

Ruminating and Gaining Perspective-Know the Difference
Second, self-compassion requires some form of reality checking and perspective taking.  Don’t take that as invitation to free fall into an abyss of rumination and resolution-seeking.  Perspective-taking requires staying present and actualizing the fact that right now is the moment where you exist.

A Moment of Reality Checking:

  • Right now. 
  • And right now, you are safe. 
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Push out a sigh if you have to. 
  • Expel that tension and breathe in the reality that right now you are safe.
  • Slowly scan your environment if you like.  This often helps to reassure that you are safe. 


In this moment of reality checking, normalize whatever tension, feeling, thought or sensation emanated from our pain.  You’ve felt like this before and it passed.  Everyone feels like this sometimes.  Feeling whatever you are feeling is understandable and a consequence of your pain. 

“Perspective-taking requires staying present and actualizing the fact that right now is the moment where you exist.”

Thoughts aren't always *real*

             Our Negativity Bias

Here’s where I’ll step out for a second to remind you that we really don’t have a lot of conscious awareness of many of the thoughts and feelings that enter into our awareness.  Have you ever noticed how many thoughts and feelings are just “there?”  The bad mood. The judgment about someone’s appearance.  The reminder that you made a mistake just when you were starting to have a little fun.  This is a result of our all having a negativity bias. 

Our bodies are hard-wired to notice the negative.  Indeed, mind is like a magnet for negativity.  Think of these arrivals as part of our preset programming.  Most of the time they don’t *mean* anything. If they did, you wouldn’t spend all morning in bed trying to figure them out. Each morning.  For days on end.   

You’re Hardwired to React to Danger
If something really is a danger, you are programmed to launch into automated behaviors such as jumping out of the way of a moving truck.  These behaviors will be based on your body’s knowledge of your best defense.  It might not be the same for everyone.  Your best bet after that automated reaction is to center yourself to allow your thinking brain to kick in.  Keep nurturing that and you can eventually hard wire in your best automated defense.

If you are not in actual danger, allow yourself to enjoy and soak in the luxury of being physically safe.  Ninety-nine times out of hundred you’ll be right and there is no saber tooth tiger.  For the 1% of the time there is actual danger, you won’t be reading this and you need to do whatever you are doing to keep yourself safe. 

Thoughts aren't facts

“Feelings aren’t facts.”

Practice Soothing Yourself

Consoling yourself

Console Yourself
Third, console yourself.  This is where many get stuck.  They draw a blank.  What the heck does that mean? How do you console yourself? This takes practice.  A lot of practice if you were not exposed to consistent and caring nurturance as a child with the patience to help you learn how to manage intense emotions and build an internal sense of safety that you could invoke to manage life’s challenges. 

Consolation Step by Step
How might you console a small child?
One starting point is to “go inside” and visualize all the steps involved in your showing compassion to anyone else.  Particularly helpful, is invoking the steps we use to console a small child.  For most, our instincts kick in and we rock, caress and speak in soothing tones.  This is exactly what you do for yourself.  This is self-compassion.  Compassion directed towards your Self. 

For some, this might be hard.  They might not be able to envision showing compassion even to a small child.  In such instances, replaying such acts that you might have read in a book or seen in a movie would be a good starting point. 

You might also, sit a bit with yourself and try to tune into what might feel good right now.  Conjure up an imaginary figure or a pet and how they might be comforting.  Any of these things often shift our perspective and more importantly our internal feeling. That positive shift is often a result of a release of oxytocin and other “feel good” chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and endorphins.  Regular and consistent boost of these chemicals from moment to moment, any moments of your choosing, can be transformational on a very deep level. 

In fact, there are many ways beyond caressing, hugging or rocking that can produce these hormones and shift our mood.  These include exercise, acupuncture, sex, music and laughter.

How to Console Yourself

*Reengineer acts of compassion either from your own behavior towards others or creative works such as books or film. 
*Direct these same acts towards yourself. 
*Start to notice what feels good in your body and go with that.  These are the building blocks of self-compassion.

Forgiveness as a Path to Healing

Forgiveness Opens the Door to Healing and Connection
What has this got to do with forgiveness and interaction with loved ones who have caused us pain?  It has to do with how much we linger in suffering as a result of past pain.  Revisiting the pain over and over in our minds creates suffering in the moment and is also a trigger point for our releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline over and over again.  Indeed, even talking excessively about our problems can increase our symptoms. 

Many people who think they are processing emotions or problem-solving are actually just ruminating.  Repeating this behavior despite the lack of solutions doesn’t seem to flag the difference.  Research shows that ruminating increases negative cognition, prolongs negative mood states and keeps the negative content that is distressing you in your working memory.  In this way, seconds, minutes or hours of past unkindness result in years of torture that wrecks havoc on our bodies as a result of the replay button in our minds.  We relive the pain over and over.


The Leap From Self Compassion to Forgiveness

Expanding our self-compassion really addresses our attachment wounds at their source.  It’s easy to see our offenders as the target, but how likely is it that you can change their behavior? You can see how hard it has been to stop the recurring reactions you are having in your own body.  Self-compassion can help dial down the suffering, provide us with the clarity we need to problem-solve and open us up to compassion for others.  Therein lies the path to forgiveness.  Forgiveness is a way to let go and salvage what might still work for a relationship. 

Taking a time out for you

Building Self-Compassion

      • Slowing down and noticing
      • Normalizing our experience and putting it in human context
      • Soothing our wounds and consoling our bodies.

Who Do We Forgive?
The answer to this question requires more depth than can be provided from one post or psychotherapy.  It involves the spiritual, moral and other realms.  Obviously, some judgment and reflection is needed and individual circumstances vary.  As a guide, we offer the following for contemplation.  Just because you forgive, doesn’t mean you need to forget.  Let’s face it, it’s practically impossible to forget embedded memories.  Desensitizing them is usually within the realm of possibility and we can do that when we shift our focus.  Some things  you will not want to forget in order to maintain your well-being. 

Does Forgiveness Create Vulnerability?
All connection requires some vulnerability.  Vulnerability isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  We aren’t always living in the presence of immediate physical threat.  Vulnerability is a gift that allows us to be open to receiving others and to grow in wisdom.  You cannot grow if you are closed off to the world.  Forgiving, moving forward and expressing compassion need not lead to ruin if there are salvageable aspects of our intimate relationships and if we stay on top of self-care. 

Remember, boundary setting is an intricate part of self-care.  Self-care is what we exercise to stay safe.  Many people are nuanced.  They are not all bad or all good.  It is ok to protect ourselves from harm even as it exists in those we love.  Sometimes emotional cut-off is not the answer. It doesn’t teach us how to manage intense emotions or tend to wounds.  It also leads to throwing the baby out with the bath water.  Do we have parents, siblings or friends with limitations around which we can manage to stay safe or perceive as ancient errors not likely to be repeated? These are the aspects worth contemplating when we have tended to our wounds and can think clearly and not reactively.  The answer might not be a resounding “yes” in all cases, but at least our contemplation considers the “maybes” and we act from a grounded sense of Self. 

The boundaries might be very individualized and specific, but they might allow relationships to continue.  We can all benefit from emotional support and connection especially in these times. 

“Sometimes emotional cut-off is not the answer. It doesn’t teach us how to manage intense emotions or tend to wounds.  It also leads to throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Here’s some additional practice and information to help you develop self-compassion and manage relational wounds:

You can find other soundbites related to preparation for therapy here .  Stay in tune with issues related to your well-being and mental health right here in the Urim Recovery Journal updated 2x a week.

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