Cultivating forgiveness

We’ve all heard incredible stories of forgiveness. Consider Nelson Mandela who forgave his captors after 27 years of imprisonment and torture. Or Gandhi, who sacrificed six years for his involvement in protesting the British colonial government in India. While these two men inspire us to forgive, it necessary to understand ‘instant and complete’ forgiveness may not be your journey. Mandala and Gandhi touched into the penthouse, while many of us continue to stumble around at the ground floor. That’s because forgiveness can be terrifying!

Sue Atkinson writes in Struggling to Forgive (2014): “Some people are likely to find forgiving easier than others because of early life experiences. For example, earlier trauma can be reawakened, prolonging the forgiving process.” In the foreword of the same book, Elaine Storkey adds: “There are times when we are incapable of forgiving, not because we do not want to forgive, but because we do not have the emotional or mental capacity to reach out beyond pain and confusion.” Further, it might take a person decades to get to the point where you realise something has to change because our body is so efficient at getting us to freeze—and one outcome of this is that we suppress what has happened.

One thing we can do, says Caroline Myss, is learn to stay in our space, on our side; without crossing boundaries.

Today, we talk a lot about respect and consent, but we don’t often consider what we are doing in our minds! How many times have you had an experience of conflict with another person and then ruminated over the conversation (what was said or what you want to say)? In our mind, we write or rewrite the script. Remember the rules we discussed earlier? Energetically we are formulating the “rules of engagement” without their consent! So, if we talk to that person again and they don’t respond to the script we have written, what happens? There is a bigger rupture.

PONDER: Have you created a script without the other person’s consent recently? What was the outcome?

Myss reminds us to consider what we pay attention to; a thought is just a thought unless we attach meaning (or an emotion, such as frustration or anger). She says it would be better to focus on what is required in a situation (accessing resources), rather than rehashing the details. Further she advises you give up trying to psycho-analyse or fix the other person. This is their business and you need to stay in your business.

Wait—what about accountability? Myss stresses the importance of doing whatever you need to stop the trauma, harm, or injury from happening, then go back to your own business and seek out your own healing. What about unforgiveable acts such as murder? Myss tells us we will move back to being the Victim in the Shadow. We shouldn’t let violence render us a lesser person, we shouldn’t let violence make us powerless, we shouldn’t let violence make us small. To persist with enforcement of rules or pushing those who break the rules will result in a loss of energy.

So, are boundaries important? Yes, if it is focused on establishing safety and that alone. By saying “no” are we (at last) using our voice? Or are we shutting ourselves out—from ourselves, our loved ones, our community, our life?

PONDER: When you say “no” to someone, what you are telling yourself it is not okay to be, feel, experience?

What does forgiveness look like?

It is uncommon to get caught up with the end goal: what the relationship look like after forgiveness? But we need to go back to the ground floor, because we know this was all about not getting survival needs met. The Victim in the Shadow knows how to get to the root of your unmet need. The person you are struggling with, whether it is a partner or work colleague has no clue! Your job is to release the unmet need or find other ways of getting it filled.

  • Step back: Find something to do that you enjoy. This helps you to understand that there are other things in life. It also provides respite from constant rumination. Don’t rush into healing but focus on being kind to yourself.
  • Practise mindfulness: This is where you come back to the injury and find the “rule” that was broken. Ask, what did I want that person to do differently? Here, your rule will be revealed. What was the unmet need? This may be the time to focus on self-care.
  • Drop the punishment: This is the equivalent of a “get out of jail card” for those who have wronged you. Be aware of how you shut offenders out or speak poorly of them. This involves paying attention to negative thoughts. (Remember, stay in your own business!)
  • Practice curiosity: Look at the other person and see what you may have missed? The good, not the bad. This will help to release yourself from the burden, the hate, the grudge.
  • Cultivate compassion: Turn your expectations around—move from being ‘let down’ to ‘hoping’ that life will turn out alright. Think of how you can connect to another being (be it a pet dog, a grandmother who has passed, or a spirit guide) to meet your unmet needs?

You will know you have forgiven when that the story has been dropped. In the space of anger or resentment or passiveness, there is expansiveness or space in place of restriction.

The last piece: The connection between victimization and self-esteem

What is self-esteem? The Oxford dictionary describes it as: “confidence in one’s own worth or abilities; self-respect.” Myss describes it as a collection of evaluations that present as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ If you have good self-esteem, you are ‘strong’ ‘confident.’ If you are ‘bad,’ you are ‘weak’ “unconfident.’

When we live in the shadow victim, our evaluations come from external sources (outside in). This makes you a victim of your circumstances. As an example, you can also find someone who can do something better than you. Or, it may be about self-image; not meeting society’s expectations.

How it plays out: grasping onto negative judgements (focussed on threats to keep safe because weakness used to mean death) and justifies the need for tough love (focussed on self-improvement).

When we live in the light victim, our evaluations are flipped to internal sources (inside out). This moves you to a place of power; you alone can determine how you think and feel about yourself. As an example, you might want to work on areas of weakness and focus on what is good in you and take it to master level!

How it play outs: judging or victimising others (if we are ‘good,’ then others as ‘bad’), may be resistant to criticism, and can have an overinflated view of the self (focussed on being special or unique).

PONDER: How do you build self-esteem? Do you base it on outside factors? Or do you build it from within?

The self-esteem situation becomes a problem when we try to figure out the sweet spot between the amount of esteem that is healthy. Myss talks about self-esteem as having ‘fortitude;’ the strength to follow your own ambition and not be knocked off balance by praise or criticism (or polar bears, if you follow the TV series!).

According to Myss, there are three ways you can cultivate fortitude:

  • Self-kindness. This involves actively offering comfort to yourself, as well as anticipating or asking for whatever it is you need from a higher source.
  • Commonality. When we suffer, we feel alone. Seek out others online or via community groups. Remember our shared humanity and, as the Buddha says, suffering is the experience of being human.
  • Mindfulness. This is non-judgemental observation (the compassionate witness). Try not to wander into past data or project what might happen in the future. Simply be in the moment. If you haven’t already incorporated this technique into your life, think about starting. You will need to set aside time to sit. Check out work by Dan Siegel if you wish to learn more.


Atkinson, S. (2014) Struggling to Forgive. Monarch Books: Oxford
Luskin, F. (2009) Forgive for Love: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. HarperCollins Publishers: New York
Myss, C. (2008) Entering the Castle. Simon & Schuster: U.S.
Myss, C. (2013) Arcetypes. Hay House: Carlsbad, U.S.