Forgive me?? Forgive you!! The role of self-compassion in forgiveness

Photo by Michael Olsen on Unsplash

When I was a kid, my mom told me a story about a time from her childhood when a girl slapped her and, good Catholic that my mom was, she turned the other cheek. What did she get for her piety? A second slap. My younger self listened to this story with disappointment. On the surface, it was tempting to say that the spiritual teaching being illustrated “didn’t work.”

My own journey with spirituality began, consciously at least, about a decade ago. At the time, I was single, unemployed, and living at my dad’s house. Aside from waiting to hear back from medical schools, a career direction I was increasingly losing confidence about, I didn’t have much going on, and I was desperately trying to find myself through spiritual practice and community activism. My dad had a much more practical worldview at the time, and his commentary felt to me like being kicked while I was down.

I was so mad at him, and I remember feeling ashamed of my anger as I was reading How To Be Compassionate by the Dalai Lama and The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. There I was, reading about how civil rights activists in the mid-twentieth century not only refrained from fighting back against violence, but actively cultivated love and compassion for their attackers, and I couldn’t muster any compassion for my dad? What was wrong with me?

The mind is a problem-solving device. Ask it a question, and it will look for the answer, so you better be sure you’re asking the right question. Plug in “What’s wrong with me?” and you’ll get “Let’s see, where do I start? You’re self-centered, ungrateful, unspiritual, judgmental…” A more empowering question, and one that honors our basic goodness, would be, “What’s in the way of my compassion and forgiveness right now?”

For me, it was pain and fear. Pain at perceived rejection, and fear of being judged not good enough. Though my dad’s words might have triggered this pain and fear, they were there already, living under the surface as insecurities, waiting to be summoned. In the years since then, I’ve taken the scenic route to self-love, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness, but once I got there, it became much easier to see the truth of the following emotional boundary mantra: 

“My feeling reality is more about me and my history than about what you are saying or doing or have said or done. And conversely, your feeling reality is more about you and your history than about what I have said or done.”

The desire to strike back at an aggressor comes from two main sources: the instinct for self-preservation, and the fear that we were targeted for good reason. If I am secure in my knowledge that I am a good person deserving of love and respect, an act of aggression against me will not cause me to wonder if I deserved it. I know who the responsible party is, and it is the person who attacked me. This knowledge does away with one of the motives to hit back.

As for the second motive, I imagine that my mom knew that a second slap wouldn’t cause any lasting harm, and as long as she didn’t allow her young adversary’s attack to weaken her own self-compassion, the spiritual lesson probably worked in her favor.

This weekend I had a long conversation with my dad about past incidents between us that had left me feeling hurt. It was not my first attempt at such a conversation, but it was my first attempt to come at the conversation from a grounded place. I spent the three weeks prior to the conversation preparing for it in my journal, with my men’s group, and in my personal therapy. My intention was to stay centered in my belief that each of us were good people doing our best with what we know, and to take full responsibility for my own feelings and my own boundaries. It reminded me of another Biblical teaching: the truth will set you free.

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Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT#123099, licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Reynolds) in California. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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