The Six Steps in Self-Forgiveness
Step 1: Take responsibility for what you did. Taking responsibility means admitting you contributed to the betrayal rather than blaming it all on someone. Borysenko (1996) quotes a spiritual teacher named Emmanuel on this, saying: “If you deny what is your nature, you become deeply attached to that denial. When you accept what is there in its truth, then you are released. One does not release through rejection, one releases through love.” It is truly an act of love to say, “I learned something important, and I will accept responsibility for what I did.”
Step 2: Confess to another person the truth about how you contributed to the creation of an event that hurt yourself. Mindbody studies show that when you confess a perceived wrong, it reduces the stress stored in your body. This stored stress can make you physically ill.Borysenko (1996) cites research that involved students who confessed to a shower curtain (no one was behind the curtain, although the students were not told this). The researcher followed up with these students and found they had better health (fewer colds and illnesses) than did a comparison group who didn’t confess. The Catholic church has known about the power of confession for many centuries. Therapy certainly plays a similar role in helping people become less depressed or guilt-ridden.
Step 3: Look compassionately at yourself, seeing how past betrayals are contaminating your experiences in the present. Identify how this betrayal correlates with other betrayals you have experienced. This will help you see the other person as an actor from central casting who is helping you work on your betrayal pattern. Avoid feeling guilty or depressed about the betrayal, reinforcing feelings of unworthiness. Borysenko (1996) says that the mind always takes the shape of what it dwells upon. If you dwell on your perceived failures or unworthiness, you may find it difficult to remember the good things about you. In order to balance this self-critical tendency, dwell also on some of your innocence and what is right about this particular betrayal experience.
Step 4: Look compassionately at the other person and be willing to make amends. Barry remembers learning an important lesson in compassion many years ago:I was working as a university administrator and had a trusted university colleague and friend in whom I confided periodically regarding my misgivings about certain university policies and the actions of some of my superiors. Without my knowledge, he shared all this information with my superiors. One day my colleague informed me that I had been fired from my administrative position and that it had been given to him. I felt devastated and hated this man for his act of betrayal. I sought the advice of a counselor who helped me deal with my self-judgments, because I was really critical of myself for trusting this man. I was also not coping well with the aftermath of the betrayal because my betrayer was now my boss rather than my colleague. This prospect brought up intense shame. The counselor helped me see that I had done nothing wrong or shameful. I managed to keep my object constancy each day when I went to work over the following four months. Later that year, I left that job for a much better one. In my new environment, I could see the situation more objectively. Because my job situation had improved and I felt happier, I began to consider forgiving this man. I was able to release my need to see myself as a victim in this situation, while also acknowledging my part in setting up the betrayal. I saw that unhealed abuse issues from childhood were behind my blind trust in this colleague. Because I couldn’t see this shadow part of myself, it was difficult for me to see it in others. This story had a very interesting ending for me. About five years after I left this university, I returned to visit some friends who still lived in the community. They suggested that we take a drive out to the campus so they could show me the new buildings and how the campus had grown. While we were walking through the building where I formerly worked, I suddenly came face to face with my betrayer. He recognized me and came toward me. At first, I felt a rush of the old anger I had held toward him and felt my fist clench. My anger passed immediately as he began to speak to me. He said, “I am so glad to see you. Many times I have tried unsuccessfully to write you a letter and I have thought of calling you to say how sorry I am about what I did to you. I have had trouble sleeping and have had many nightmares. I want to resolve this. Will you forgive me for what I did I really need your forgiveness, so I can get on with my life.” I thought for a minute, seeing the distress in his eyes. Then I said, “I forgave you a long time ago. I needed to do that for me, not for you. I urge you to forgive yourself, because that is what is holding you back, not my lack of forgiveness.”He looked at me and seemed to take in what I was saying. Then he said, “Thank you for forgiving me. I will now try to forgive myself.” Then he told me that what he had done to me had also happened to him. He had been fired as well. He said that he normally would not have been at the office that day, but he was there packing his things to leave the university. Our chance meeting may not have been chance at all. I had the feeling that this meeting was arranged by someone wiser than us in order to give this man a chance to remove the burden he had carried for the past five years. It also gave me a chance to make amends in a way that I didn’t even know I needed to do. It was a profound lesson in forgiveness that I will never forget.
Step 5: Ask for help from spiritual realms (as you define them) in developing compassionate forgiveness. There are numerous spiritual lessons that can be learned from a betrayal. One of the most intriguing spiritual concepts is the concept of surrender. Surrender has to do with letting go of judgments toward self and others. It takes two forms, a masculine form and a feminine form. Men and women need to exhibit both forms. If you are good at one form but not the other, you may find it difficult to heal betrayals. The masculine form of surrender involves the ability to take charge of your life without guilt. Many people would rather feel guilty than be responsible and face their shortcomings. Guilt is usually teamed with resentment. If you feel guilty about something you have done to someone, you may also resent this person in some way. It is your responsibility to take charge of your guilt. This is the message Barry gave his colleague who was unable to take charge of his guilt and was waiting for Barry to forgive him so he could forgive himself. The feminine form of surrender involves the ability to receive without resistance. Perhaps you remember a time when someone said or did something that hurt you. It may have been difficult for you to experience what this person did or said. Perhaps you denied the truth of the words or deeds by verbally or physically erecting barriers against the person’s message. Perhaps you responded with some sterile choices, deflecting the impact of the betrayal. In order to learn from the betrayal and achieve some level of spiritual healing, you need to experience its impact and full meaning. Men seem to have more difficulty learning to receive than women do. On the other hand, women seem to have more problems in taking charge without guilt. If a man can’t receive without resistance, his capacity for learning from a betrayal situation can be greatly diminished. A woman who cannot take charge without guilt but is good at receiving without resistance may end up being overpowered and victimized. These twin concepts are very important in helping you learn from and heal the trauma you experience from betrayals.
Step 6: Reflect on what you have learned as a result of experiencing something as a betrayal. This might turn out to be the most important part of the forgiveness process. If you can look at the betrayal situation objectively and make a healthy response to the perceived betrayal, you have an opportunity to increase your self-awareness, heal your developmental trauma connected to it, and make sure you do not draw any other people into your life to help you experience any similar betrayals in the future. This is a form of mastery and shifts your consciousness in an important way. You will have learned that betrayals are opportunities to heal yourself and you will be more readily able to use any further perceived betrayals as tools for your own healing rather then opportunities to blame others for betraying you.
References: Borysenko, J. (1996). Seventy times seven: On the spiritual art of forgiveness. Audiotape. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.