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Forgiving Past Mistakes: A Self-Guided Exercise
By Lucy Leu, Raj Gill and Judi Morin

While most spiritual teachings guide us in how to forgive others, many people struggle forgiving our own past mistakes. When we do or say things we wish we hadn’t, we often judge ourselves and feel shame, guilt or anger. NVC offers a compassionate and productive process to relate to our mistakes, foster learning, and to experience regret without blame or self-hate. Keep reading this article >>

Ask the Author Column
This Month's Ask the Author Column
Answered by Lucy Leu
This month's reader question in the area of social change:
How do I transform the enemy images in my head of the "other side" of my cause? How do they impact my ability to affect change? Read author's answer >>

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“When we understand the needs that motivate our own and other’s behavior, we have no enemies.”

Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D.

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An Inspiring Video
You'll Never Forget

World-renowned author, peacemaker, and conflict resolution expert, Marshall Rosenberg, Ph.D. talks about the keys to prevent all forms of conflict and violence in this 10-minute video.


Forgiving Past Mistakes, continued

Getting to a space of self-forgiveness involves mourning our mistakes without judgment. The following exercise aims to free up the energy we use to protect ourselves from painful past events so it becomes available to meet our present needs.

Take five minutes right now to recall a painful past event that continues to trigger anxiety, shame or an urge to protect or defend yourself. The incident may consist of something you did or something that happened to you. You may find it helpful to write the event down.

As you recall the past event, if you experience an overwhelm of memories and emotions, try one of the following strategies to recenter:

  • You can return and connect with your breath, noticing breathing in and breathing out, receiving and letting go of each breath.
  • You can focus on some details of your memory that carry no emotional significance.
  • As we move through the exercise, you will be summoning the presence of a being who, for you, is non-judgmental and capable of keeping you safe today. If you become overwhelmed, you can simply pause, notice what you are experiencing, and in your mind’s eye, speak to this being, telling them what you are feeling in this moment - either emotionally or physically in your body.

Follow the exercise below now, or click here to download a PDF of the exercise to follow later >>

  1. Sit comfortably. Straighten your spine. Make any necessary adjustments.
  2. Focus your attention inward by closing your eyes or gently dropping your gaze to the floor in front of you.
  3. Focus your attention on your breathing. Simply experience yourself receiving breath and letting go of breath.
  4. Now imagine yourself in a place where you feel safe and free.
  5. Take time to make yourself comfortable there and to notice your surroundings.
  6. Return to your breath, noticing yourself breathing in and breathing out, receiving breath and letting go of breath.
  7. If at any time during this exercise you notice any resistance to the process, try to give space to that. Honor your experience as it is with a gentle awareness.
  8. Now bring to mind a being in whose presence you feel completely safe. This being is powerful and will protect you. They welcome you with unconditional love, fully accepting you just as you are. Invite this being to join you in the safe place you chose earlier.
  9. When you are ready, tell the loving being about the event you recalled and jotted down. Describe what happened.
  10. Remember, if you begin to feel overwhelmed, you can pause and use one of the following centering strategies: (a) Go back to your breathing, receiving breath and letting go of breath. (b) Or focus on a detail that has no emotional significance. (c) Or you can center your attention on the here and now, on what you are feeling and on the sensations in your body. Tell the protective being what is happening for you right now, right here. You may either continue with these centering strategies or, if you feel ready, you may return to the story you were describing to the compassionate being.
  11. When you have completed your sharing, take a moment to notice what it feels like to be empathically received by the compassionate being.
  12. Now, as you recall the incident, tell the compassionate being what you were needing during that time. What universal needs and values were prominent for you in the situation you described? Notice the deep appreciation with which the compassionate being is receiving the needs you just named. Imagine them embracing the needs with tenderness and respect. Stay here together, recognizing the preciousness of the needs. (Allow 15 seconds of silence.)
  13. Now you are being asked whether you would like to receive this need into your heart where it will be treasured. If you say “yes,” notice yourself receiving this valuable quality — allowing either yourself or the compassionate being to place it carefully into your heart. If you are not ready to receive it, watch the compassionate being bring it into their own heart where it will be kept safe for you.
  14. Now check in with yourself. What do you feel and need right now in this moment, having had this experience with the loving being? If you wish, share your feelings and needs with this friendly presence who has accompanied you in this exercise. Notice how gently this being receives each of your needs, regarding each with great care. If you are able, join them by taking a moment to cherish the needs you just identified. Otherwise, simply notice how they are being valued. (15 seconds)
  15. Now the being is asking you whether you wish to place the needs you just named in your own heart. If you say “yes”, place them in your heart with care. Otherwise, watch the compassionate being put your needs lovingly into their heart where they will be carried for you.
  16. As you prepare to take leave, tell the loving being how you have experienced your time together. Let them know if you wish to connect again.
  17. Now bid goodbye to the being whom you have invited for this journey.
  18. Recall the two sets of needs you identified during this exercise: the needs you had during the incident and the needs you have now. Can you imagine yourself holding both sets of needs with equal care?

Raised in different cultures and languages, Raj Gill, Lucy Leu and Judi Morin found their lives intersecting at the culture of peace through the language of Nonviolent Communication. Judi Morin, a Sister of St. Ann, served for 26 years as prison chaplain for Correctional Service Canada. Lucy Leu co-founded Freedom Project to establish Nonviolent Communication and mindfulness trainings for prisoners and returnees (those returning to the community from prison). Raj Gill brings 30 years of teaching experience to the Nonviolent Communication and leadership trainings she leads for schools, youth groups, prisons, businesses, government and nonprofit organizations.

Keep learning these vital communication skills with these books and training resources:

Resources from Lucy Leu, Raj Gill and Judi Mori:



Ask the Author, continued

Answer from Lucy Leu:
If someone opposes a cause I identify with, it’s easy for my heart to contract and for my mind to view them as an enemy.

When this happens, I may want to pause and fully recognize and accept the fact that I am harboring "enemy images." I can do so by welcoming and opening myself to this present-moment experience:

  • What does it feel like to be in this body right now as I harbor enemy images of that person? (What kind of physical sensations do I notice in my neck, chest, face, etc.?)
  • What is my mind doing with this awareness? (Am I judging myself for not being adequately "compassionate," "evolved," "NVC"? Or perhaps I’m defending my enemy images: "Hey, EVERYONE agrees the guy is a hate-mongering bigot!")

Before I move forward to “transform” these enemy images, I may want to ask myself WHY –- I mean, why bother? Sometimes the answer may come quick and clear:

  • “Obviously I am in pain. This state of separation, alienation, hating and aversion simply hurts!”
  • “I trust and value the NVC paradigm that calls forth heart connection as the basis from which to resolve differences. I am committed to living that paradigm.”
  • “I am remembering how much more power I have in effecting change when I replace enemy images with the consciousness of mutual needs.”

If no answer pops up for me, I may choose to continue holding enemy images. However, I will be watching carefully for what happens in my world - both internally and externally - when I do this.

On the other hand, if I choose to transform and release my enemy, I’d first list all my judgments and complaints about them on a piece of paper. One by one, I would ask myself to touch and explore the unmet need hidden beneath each label, blame, expletive, analysis, etc.

Having taken time to appreciate all these needs, I could turn my attention to the cause I’m championing - imagining a world in which that cause is fully realized. How would the world look? How would it be different from today? How would I feel living in such a world? What needs of mine would be richly fulfilled in that world?

After I have grounded and connected to the beautiful needs that this cause enlivens in me, I may be ready (or not) to peer out in curiosity at that fellow human who is opposing the cause. What’s going on for them? What are they seeing? Hearing? Feeling? What values are they yearning to realize or protect?

I remind myself that this other being and I – we share the same needs and values, but our strategies for realizing them are different. What comes up for them when they encounter my strategies (i.e. my “cause” and the way I am going about it)? What needs may not be met for them?

I aspire to stay connected to my own needs, to recognize my opponent as an integral part of the humanity that stirs in me, and to empathize with their reality - their suffering and dreams, feelings and needs. If I can do this (rather than allow my energy to get caught up in thoughts and images of what’s wrong with them), I will have greatly increased the likelihood of being able to affect them and the situation I care about.

Lucy Leu is the co-founder of Freedom Project, author of the NVC Companion Workbook, co-author of the NVC Toolkit for Facilitators. She lives in Victoria, B.C.



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