Adverse Childhood Experiences
Lightening the Load We Carry From Childhood
Ten ways to forgive the unkindest cuts.
Posted October 24, 2022 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
- Choosing to forgive serious offenses from childhood can greatly improve our sense of well-being.
- The journey to forgiveness starts with compassion toward self.
- Even small and faltering steps can get the forgiveness ball rolling.
This post is part of a series on adverse childhood experiences. Read the other parts here.
Forgiving the deepest hurts from childhood is difficult. Why do we do it? Because we see those who practice forgiveness feeling lighter, happier, and more at peace. Here are 10 ways that might help you forgive the understandably very difficult-to-forgive offenses related to adverse childhood experiences.
1. Cultivate self-compassion. As you mindfully acknowledge the pain you carry, repeat the words silently or aloud: “This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is part of life. May I bring compassion to this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need” (Neff, 2011). These intentions remind us that everyone suffers, we are not alone, and suffering need not be permanent. Loving-kindness is what heals.
2. Cultivate the intention to forgive, Intention begins the process of forgiving. For this meditation, inspired by Sharon Salzberg (1995), sit comfortably. Close your eyes if that is comfortable, and settle for a few moments in your breath. Consider these four reflections. As different events, people, or images come up, repeat an appropriate intention of forgiveness silently or aloud:
- For all I did or failed to do, knowingly or unknowingly, that has harmed others or myself, may I feel forgiveness. For whatever comes up, repeat, “May I feel forgiveness.”
- For all the ways I have hurt or harmed myself or others, knowingly or unknowingly, I offer myself forgiveness. For whatever comes up, repeat, “I offer myself forgiveness."
- If anyone has hurt or harmed me, knowingly or unknowingly, I forgive them. For whatever comes up, repeat, “I forgive you.”
- If I have hurt or harmed anyone, knowingly or unknowingly, I ask for their forgiveness. For whatever comes up, repeat, “I ask your forgiveness.”
3. Imagine the offender as an innocent, suffering child. Ask why that child was hurting. In Alcoholics Anonymous, adults are encouraged to think of an offender as a sick friend who is suffering spiritually. Then it is easier to forgive, for we would forgive a sick friend.
4. Don’t personalize. The offense is more about the pain and imperfect past of the offender than it is about you.
5. Write a forgiveness letter. Louis Zamperini, made famous by the movie and book Unbroken (Hildebrand, 2010), was an Olympic runner before WWII. After his bomber went down in the Pacific, he survived 47 days on a life raft, and was then tortured mercilessly by the Japanese when his raft reached an enemy-occupied island. After the war, his life was in shambles resulting from the trauma. After he discovered forgiveness, he returned to Japan and forgave his tormentors. To his most brutal tormentor, who would not meet with Louis, he wrote a forgiveness letter. Such letters typically have four parts. Start by writing, “Dear _____ (name the person who hurt you).” Then:
- Describe your hurt—the facts about what happened, your feelings, and your thoughts.
- Write how you wish the offender had behaved (accepting that that ideal person did not exist then, and might not exist now—and reconciling and building trust with the offender might not happen).
- Include a statement of empathy, such as “You were having your own difficulties back then.”
- Write a statement of intent, such as “I now release my bitterness to free you and me to live fully again.”
Then sign your name. Repeat for each offense for which bitterness lingers.
6. Take the offender to neutral. If the person hasn’t earned your trust or goodwill, and forgiving now seems like such a stretch, simply say, “I take you to zero, zip, nada; I won’t waste my time thinking about you or remembering.”
7. Consider positives that have resulted from your pain. Did you learn that you have great strength in order to survive what you went through? Did the hurt strengthen your resolve to never let another’s mistreatment of you define your worth? Have you developed compassion for other suffering people? Can you anticipate with pleasure a brighter future, perhaps applying your emerging strengths?
Adverse Childhood Experiences Essential Reads
8. Act as if you’ve already forgiven. For example, how would you behave toward a parent if you did forgive him/her? Probably with more affection, trust, and appreciation for their suffering? Even if forced, you might find that feelings of forgiveness and compassion follow.
9. Release unworkable beliefs. These include:
- What the offender did is unforgivable. (Forgiveness is the choice you make, irrespective of the offense or whether or not the offender deserves forgiveness.)
- I must have justice. (We can forgive whether or not justice is served. If we seek justice, say through the legal system, we can do so with the motive of protecting self and others, not bitterness.)
- Without the offender’s love, I can’t be happy. (It is certainly difficult to feel happy when a caregiver hurts us, but happiness is a skill we can learn, despite such treatment. Releasing the bitterness that weighs us down is an important step toward opening our hearts to greater happiness.)
10. Give it time. Forgiving is a difficult, but worthwhile, process. If forgiveness seems presently out of reach, you might think: “May I one day forgive,” or “May I one day consider the possibility of forgiving.”
In 1988, 80-year-old Louis Zamperini carried the Olympic Torch past the location of a Japanese prison camp where he had been so brutally treated. Like so many others who have released bitterness for even the most egregious offenses, he had a peaceful smile and a serenity that persisted throughout his life. Countless stories like this show us that forgiveness is possible, even for the worst offenses. Even small efforts to forgive can bring great rewards—and are almost always well worth the effort.
Schiraldi, G. R. (2021). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Recovery Workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications (scripts for forgiveness strategies).
Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: William Morrow, imprint of HarperCollins.
Hildebrand, L. (2010). Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House.
Salzberg, S. (1995). Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness. Boston: Shambhala.