When Forgiveness Becomes an Act of Self-Care

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by Jim Blake, guest contributor

Sooner or later, despite our best efforts, every business leader will have feelings of self-doubt, inadequacy, insecurity, and fear. Too often we ignore these feelings by pressing them down or attempting to put a positivity bandage on them. But avoidance will only lead to a cycle of repetition. Instead, we must have the courage to look at our pain, our sorrow, our trauma—and the feelings that result—without letting them define us.

Depending on your life experience, feelings of inadequacy or unworthiness may have been born from a critical parent or abusive relationship. To this day I am still unraveling the repeated messages I received in my formative years about my abilities, my body, and whether I would “amount to anything.” My path to healing was born out of becoming clear that just because someone said it—and I still hear that voice or those words in my head—does not mean I am that. In fact, I most certainly am not what they told me, but I had to become willing to see myself as I am and not what was projected upon me. I had to become willing to define my own story and lean away from the lens of others. It is in that work that I have been able to heal and transcend those struggles. 

Reacting to Stress

When we are facing a disturbance—a stressor of some kind—emotions may get the better of us. We can slip into feelings of anger, upset, or anxiety. We may tense our bodies, use poor language, experience increased blood pressure or heart rates, and have all sorts of negative thoughts that spin uncontrollably in our minds. A single event can also make us grumpy and resentful for an entire day. How many of us have started our day alert and generally positive only to receive some frustrating news or have something happen—like spilling coffee all over the presentation you were about to share with a client? I know I have. And unfortunately, in the past I have carried that anger and frustration with me right into the office or my next activity. I have snapped at undeserving coworkers or family members and made poor decisions that I later regretted, all because my frame of mind was not in the right place. 

Consider that for a moment. How many decisions will we make from this cranky, angry place? Would we make different choices if we were deciding from a happy place? Some decisions may not have much of an impact while others could be catastrophic if made hastily or from anger. Additionally, consider how often we find ourselves mired in negative emotions. What is the collective impact of our poor decision-making? The way we approach all our choices, day in and day out, can change our experience of the day, our life, and the lives of others. Just as the flap of a butterfly’s wings can cause a typhoon, so can our myriad choices have a ripple effect far beyond our imagination.

Choosing Our Response

How can we intervene, then? Psychotherapist Viktor E. Frankl said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Often, we are moving so quickly in thought and word that we skip right past this space. But if we catch it, we have an opportunity in that space to choose from a calmer place. We can accept this unfolding and be open to the possibility that everything can still work in a perfect way—even though it may not be what we expect in the moment.

Serving as CEO in an innovative culture where we have created change both internally and customer-facing, I have had a fair number of phone calls from constituents who were not in favor of some of our changes. These delicate conversations are the perfect environment to practice pausing and centering prior to responding. As you might imagine, some of these calls can be quite critical, so the test is always to be open to hearing what is being said without getting defensive or being pulled into a power struggle to be “right.”

With time I have been able to look back and see that when I became present, I could listen deeply without becoming defensive and, in almost every case, there was a nugget of wisdom that we could use to improve what we were doing. The mere effort of listening thoughtfully to people and their grievances is all that is needed, even when you end up not agreeing. Most people are like all of us—they just want to be seen, heard, and acknowledged.  Because I have learned this, I return every phone call or email, every letter or inquiry I receive. The fact that people are reaching out means they still care, and the act of showing that you care by listening to them can deepen the relationship.

We can’t control all of life, but we don’t have to feel powerless either. No matter what happens, it is our response to circumstances that shape our experience. The foundational component of better living is managing our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. The more in touch we become with our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, the more clarity we will have to manage and change them, for both short- and long-term benefit. Minimizing the disturbances we experience helps us have healthier bodies, make better decisions, and show up as our best selves in our organizations and communities.

Of course, not every event can be processed quickly with ease and grace. Some experiences take us more time to come to terms with. However, the longer we grapple with past experiences, the more we prolong our mental and emotional attachment to and struggle with that experience. In those circumstances, there is one special key to maintaining inner peace, but I warn you, it might make you groan. It’s forgiveness.

Forgiveness & The Art of Well-Being

If you are like me, there are times I read a phrase like “forgiveness and the art of well-being” and immediately bristle with resistance. Why? Because sometimes there are fresh events in my life where I might still be holding raw energy or emotions, and I am not ready to embrace the idea of forgiveness. Forgiveness can feel like a sacrifice or concession that lets someone off the hook. It feels like an act we are being asked to perform for the benefit of making someone else feel better. What I would like you to consider with me now is that the act of forgiveness is something extremely powerful that we do for ourselves and not another person.

Allow me to explain. First and foremost, when we need to forgive someone, we typically have stored energy or emotion around this event or person. We may be carrying anger, hurt, or resentment, and each time we think of that circumstance, we relive the incident. In doing so, we rekindle all the original emotions, which can create stress in our minds, hearts, and even bodies.

I want to be sensitive to the pain associated with these past events. The events were real, in some cases even traumatic. We are human beings, and emotion is a significant part of our experience. It is important to allow ourselves to acknowledge our emotional pain and trauma, to feel our feelings deeply and without judgment, so we can process them in a healthy way rather than stuff the feelings. That said, our goal in feeling and processing these emotions is to move past them so we won’t become stuck in anger or pain or resentment.

Forgiveness is an act of self-care that can free us from recalling an experience and regenerating its painful emotions. We can stop the pattern and its impact on our minds, bodies, and emotional state. We cease the roller coaster and its harm to ourselves. This is how we move past it, prioritizing our own sense of well-being and promoting better decision-making skills. Once we are able to release our mental and emotional processing of the past, we open our minds and hearts to current circumstances. We choose to fill the space with gratitude and focus on the positive desires and outcomes we are seeking in the present moment.

We must remember to include ourselves in this practice, to forgive ourselves for things we might consider mistakes or wrong choices. This is often more powerful than forgiving others. It is very easy to hold on to all of our worst decisions or management mistakes, hindering our leadership and decision-making abilities before we’ve even begun. To release ourselves from the bondage of our past actions is every bit as beneficial as forgiving another. Once we have forgiven ourselves, we can begin anew—without the shadows of previous problems or complications hanging over us.

Try This Practice 

I have a mantra that I found years ago and use to this day. Any time I have a memory or disturbance I want to release, I become still and bring to mind the person or circumstance. Then I recite the following:

For whatever harm I have caused others, may they forgive me.

For whatever harm others have caused me, may I forgive them.

For whatever harm I have caused myself, I forgive myself.

Depending on the magnitude of what I am trying to forgive, I might have to repeat this practice several times to release all my energy about the situation. But without fail, after repeating this practice a few times, I notice the energy dissipates and I am able to release the experience and free myself from the past. This work is critical to our own health and well-being, and also to promoting a spirit of patience, compassion, and appreciation in our organizations.

Adapted from The Zen Executive: Gems of Wisdom for Enlightened Leadership by Jim Blake. Published by Unity Books on May 15, 2022.

Jim Blake is the CEO of Unity World Headquarters, a global spiritual nonprofit. Prior to being named CEO, he had more than 20 years of executive leadership experience with some of the fastest growing and most innovative companies in North America.

Do you have a practice that helps you to find forgiveness? Please share in the comments!


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