Monday, April 28, 2014


At some point in their therapy every client tells us something for which they need to forgive themselves. Yet for most of us our training did not teach us how to help our clients to forgive themselves. I learned how about twenty years ago from a very painful personal experience.
From that experience I was able to discern four important aspects of a process. First, while there are certain steps that we can take to facilitate the work, self-forgiveness unfolds with each person according to its own timetable. The other three aspects have to do with using petitionary prayer, the healing power of spending time in nature and the importance of using some guided imagery as a way of tapping into other realms of consciousness.
Self-forgiveness is not a rational process. It cannot effectively be attained through analytic reasoning,some form of intellectual understanding or some other primarily cognitive process. Because forgiveness occurs in the territory of the heart and spirit it can only be accessed in those realms. As psychotherapists and counselors we need to find ways of tapping into those other realms of consciousness that transcend our everyday ego processes.
I encourage my patients to use certain prayers/mantras. Sometimes these prayers are a kind of petition that is reaching out to some external source of forgiveness outside of ourselves. What patients call this source depends on their particular spiritual path. These prayers also attempt to connect us to some internal source of forgiveness. I tell my patients that they are calling on some aspect of their personal consciousness that transcends their everyday mind, a source of deep inner wisdom that knows what is in their best interests. I use the terms Higher Self, Deep Self or Personal Higher Power to give a name to this inner source. When one of those names does not resonate with a particular patient, we find something else.
I write on three separate index cards:
Help Me To Forgive Myself
Please Forgive Me
Help Me To Feel Forgiven
and give them to my patients suggesting that they put them in a shirt/blouse pocket next to their heart, in their car or in some other place where they will see it often. I encourage them to take the cards out and say these prayers/mantras often between sessions. In the first session after I hand them those cards I ask my patients about their experience in using the cards. Most commonly they have used them only a few times often guiltily reporting,"I didn't do my homework". I respond warmly with a smile,"That's what happens with most patients. That's how guilt works - it will undermine our work by getting you not to do what will help you to feel better." And then I encourage them to do more. They usually do.
I also suggest taking the prayers with them on solitary walks to some local nature setting that is special to them. Contemplating the words while walking in the woods, by the ocean, along a brook or on the top of a hill deepens the efficacy of the prayer. I explain to my patients that in many ancient spiritual traditions it was common for people, whenever they needed some deep psychospiritual healing, to go away from the distractions of everyday life and go into the natural world. This form of retreat into some place in nature fostered greater access to other non-rational realms of consciousness both within and outside of themselves.
After several weeks of saying the prayers and visiting their nature place between sessions I begin to use guided imagery. I ask my patient to close their eyes and have them do several minutes of meditational breathing. Then I say," Imagine that you are taking a solitary walk in your nature setting. Remember that this is a safe place where no harm can come to you." For some patients who prefer forest settings I will guide them to a clearing in the woods with an ancient deeply rooted tree in the center; for others it will be a long walk along the edge of the ocean listening to the gentle waves; for others it will be a walk through the woods to their brook or river where there will be a stone to sit on. After a while I will say,"Stop walking. Now begin to imagine coming towards you at a distance that feels safe to you, some image of forgiveness. It is important to trust whatever image shows up at this time, even if it makes no sense to you. Spend some time just witnessing this image. Now begin to imagine opening up your heart and letting in the forgiveness that the image in some way is offering."
In the twenty years that I've been doing this self-forgiveness work I've witnessed a wide spectrum of images. Sometimes what emerges is very personal to that patient - some loved one or beloved pet. Sometimes it will be an image from their spiritual or religious tradition. Sometimes it will be an archetypal image. Sometimes a "presence". Sometimes a warm light or enveloping fog. Sometimes... Since a lot of what happens in this work is mysterious and idiosyncratic to that person, it is important for us to respect whatever image shows up and to quiet down our need to analyze or interpret. Sometimes a patient spontaneously tells why he/she thinks that a particular image occurred. I've learned over these many years that my need to analyze and understand can interfere with a sacred process. So nowadays I rarely inquire - unless I can't contain my curiosity.
Usually there will be a number of these imagery sessions, sometimes in back to back sessions, more commonly interspersed over several months. For some clients the forgiveness image remains the same each time. Often it changes. It is essential to trust how the process unfolds with each patient and to remember that forgiveness does not occur in linear time. You may do this imagery work for weeks and at some point it feels finished. Then for many patients the need for more work becomes clear six months later. In these instances forgiveness needs over time to penetrate through many layers of consciousness.

Of course it is not possible within the limitations of a blog entry to discuss all the ways of working with self-forgiveness in great depth. For a deeper discussion including several examples of particular patients and a description of my personal experience that led to this work take a look at "Wisdom of the Heart: A Therapist's Guide to Heart-Centered Psychotherapy.