Forgiveness and radical acceptance

In General by Dr. Keith Witt


It’s astonishing how many human miseries can be resolved through forgiveness and radical acceptance. Never forgiving is taking poison to punish someone else—the more you punish the sicker you get.

On the other hand, the more you practice forgiveness and radical acceptance, the more you grow. Maturation on many developmental lines like the self, moral, psychosocial, psychosexual, and integration-of-defenses lines converges into forgiveness and radical acceptance.

Forgiveness leads to radical acceptance—a similar but related set of processes and states. Both forgiveness and radical acceptance progress through stages.

State and process

Forgiveness is both a state and a process, just as radical acceptance is both a state and a process.

Processes naturally tend to progress through predictable stages. Let’s dive a little deeper into forgiveness.

Forgiveness: states and stages

The states of forgiveness progress in stages:

  1. Forgiveness begins with states of pain and anger—always from past injuries.
  2. We want to stop the pain and avoid dark memories and meanings. Common avoidance strategies are states of denial, dissociation, projection, rationalization, blame, aggression, and scapegoating—strategies that never work satisfactorily.
  3. We usually need to generate courageous and self-aware states to face painful memories/meanings.
  4. Courageous and self-aware states lead to hopeful and wise states of compassionate understanding, which help us enter states of forgiveness.

We want to forgive ourselves

We also crave forgiveness beyond forgiving those who have trespassed against us. We yearn to forgive ourselves for real or imagined mistakes, and for others to forgive us for past mistakes and bad behavior.

The good news is that forgiveness as a state is possible and learnable. The more difficult news is that, even though we can ease emotional pain with forgiveness, the pain and meanings need to be first felt/acknowledged to be integrated into larger more loving narratives.

Forgiveness is retrospective—it begins by reflection on past pain.

Forgiveness always begins by looking backward to an injury that still stings—retrospective from now. We look back now and seek forgiveness for what is past, to feel forgiven and forgiving now, so we can be more present moving into the future.

How can we learn how to forgive?

I believe almost all forgiveness systems are valuable. Forgiveness processes proceed through stages. The state of forgiveness—feeling that deep breath of liberation in moments of release from blame and shame—shows up off and on through the whole forgiveness journey.

How to get there?

  1. Acknowledge the pain. Turn towards the distress and the unforgiving story.
  2. Acknowledgment leads to blame, a necessary stage, if only for an instant. Denying blame is like any other lie, it diminishes us. If I’m not in a state of forgiveness, I am blaming someone else or myself for a past offense. Blame is uncomfortable, but useful as a guide to where to practice forgiveness.
  3. Exploring blame with compassionate understanding leads to feeling responsibility to heal and forgive. Compassionate understand helps us keep discovering that forgiveness makes our universe more beautiful, good, and true.
  4. Increasing responsibility to grow, do right, and forgive leads to accepting all experience with equanimity—radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is also a process and a state

As we cultivate radical acceptance of everything, we spend more and more moments in states of radical acceptance. I feel these states as relaxed love and surrender to the world as it is, and me as I am. When Eckhart Tolle talks about “presence,” or when Buddhists discuss Samadhi (an enlightened state) they’re in radical acceptance territory.

Radical acceptance is prospective

Radically accepting the past leaves us in the present moment moving forward into the future, with a positively evolving personal narrative.

Like forgiveness, radical acceptance involves different states progressing through stages. I’ve observed myself and my clients go through these stages, independent of what forgiveness/acceptance systems we’ve practiced.

Stages of radical acceptance include:

  1. Identifying the state of radical acceptance and wanting more.
  2. Discovering that radical acceptance involves feeling, accepting, and transforming distress, shame, rage, and defensive reactions into a loving and inspiring personal narrative. I think the Catholic concept of redemption involves the transformative power of radical acceptance.
  3. Beginning to be curious when slipping into grabby attachments and blame, and learning to immediately reach for compassionate understanding and right action.
  4. Finding radical acceptance and right action to be increasingly normal experiences—eventually becoming natural reactions to blame and shame.

It’s always harder than it sounds

Of course, as with everything, there are infinite nuances to forgiveness and radical acceptance. For example, in general it’s much harder to forgive ongoing injuries—the spouse who keeps contemptuously attacking, the drug company who keeps relentlessly lying and exploiting, the corporate and political leaders who don’t factor human suffering or welfare into their decisions for power and profit.

Also, we all have habits of blame which will continue to arise throughout our lives as we feel injured or triggered. Forgiveness and radical acceptance are possible in these situations, but are difficult, complex, and endlessly restimulating, requiring ongoing processes of cultivating compassionate understanding and assertive actions.

In Buddhism, the eight-fold path of right view, right intent, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi are all forms of compassionate understanding and right actions. They are all forms of radical acceptance.

How to best practice forgiveness and radical acceptance?

  • Discuss with wise others where you withhold forgiveness and resist radical acceptance.
  • Cultivate the processes of forgiveness and radical acceptance.
  • Savor the states of forgiveness and radical acceptance as they arise.
  • Promote and model forgiveness and radical acceptance in your social networks.

The more wisdom in the world, the faster we’ll solve all the world’s problems. When you practice forgiveness and radical acceptance you’re contributing to the world’s wisdom.

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