How Can We Forgive Others? Self-compassion as a Step Toward Forgiveness
Please take a moment and recall a time when somebody hurt you. What did this person do to you? What was your relationship with this person? How are you feeling right now? Do you want to take revenge on this person, or avoid seeing them, or re-establish a relationship? Psychological research found that forgiveness promotes harmonious relationships and our own well-being. If this is the case, who is more willing to forgive others? My colleague and I found that self-compassion is one of the key characteristics of such people.
Self-compassion is defined as the tendency to care for ourselves when things go wrong, just as we treat our friends and family compassionately. Theory suggests that people who have self-compassion treat themselves in a kind and accepting manner, connecting their experiences with those of others, and taking a balanced and nonjudgmental perspective on their situation. The emotional tone of a self-compassionate person is calm and cheerful. Such a person would say to themselves “It is okay to feel bad because of what has happened. There are lots of people who encounter similar experiences, so I am not the only one who suffers. I will take a break and feel relaxed because I care about myself.”
This might sound like such people are self-indulgent. However, past research in psychology found that self-compassionate people actually take responsibility for negative events and make efforts to improve their situation. Our research also showed that self-compassionate people forgive the person who hurt them.
How do self-compassionate people forgive others? Our research attempted to answer this question. We recruited 254 participants from a Japanese internet research service. We asked them to complete a questionnaire to measure self-compassion, and then to recall a time when someone they knew had hurt them―yes, you have just experienced our methodology at the beginning of this blog. Later, they answered questions about repetitive thoughts on their offenders and their intention to forgive. Specifically, forgiveness was indicated by a lower intention to revenge and avoid their offenders and a higher motive to re-establish relationships with the persons.
Self-compassionate people did not dwell on the persons who hurt them, and, thus, they were willing to forgive them. Self-compassionate people were less likely to continue thinking of their offenders, and thus had lower intentions to seek revenge and avoid the persons. Self-compassion includes taking a broader perspective of experiences without getting carried away with negative thoughts. Because of the tendency to take a bird’s-eye view, self-compassionate people might be able to release repetitive thoughts and therefore their grudge against someone who hurt them.
Furthermore, our work showed that self-compassionate people are more willing to re-establish harmonious relationships with their offenders. When we give kindness to ourselves and our hearts are filled with warmth and love, then we might be able to extend compassion even toward someone who hurt us. Additionally, self-compassionate people are considered to see their connections with others and kindly acknowledge that human beings are imperfect. Such acknowledgment may foster compassion toward offenders.
Let’s recap. What should we do if we cannot forgive others? Our results suggest that self-compassion is an important step toward forgiveness. When we treat ourselves with compassion, we start to forgive the person who hurt us. You might be a bit concerned that you may be not good at showing compassion to yourself. Please don’t worry. The good news is that self-compassion is not just a stable characteristic but a skill that everyone can learn. Psychologists have developed several training programs to learn self-compassion skills. Research has consistently reported the effectiveness of such programs among children, university students, adults, and people with mental illness. So, even if you feel low in self-compassion now, you will be able to develop compassion for yourself.
A next step in research will be to arrange for people to undergo such a training program and see if they become more able to forgive others. With self-compassion, we seem to reduce our grudges against others and move toward better relationships.
For Further Reading
Miyagawa, Y., & Taniguchi, J. (2020). Self-compassion helps people forgive transgressors: Cognitive pathways of interpersonal transgressions. Self and Identity. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2020.1862904
Neff, K. D. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(3), 85-101. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298860309032
Germer, C. K., & Neff, K. D. (2013). Self-compassion in clinical practice. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 69(8), 856-867. https://doi.org/10.1002/jclp.22021
Yuki Miyagawa is a Lecturer at Otemon Gakuin University in Japan. His research focuses on understanding the processes through which people cope with adversity.