7 Steps to Atoning for Pain You've Caused Another

spiritual healing, conifers, lake tahoe trees, blue sky
In a time where survivors of abuses are increasingly coming forth, are being appreciated, and are receiving help, there is another side of the healing spectrum that must be addressed: that of the abuser.

Healing the abuser is central to healing the whole situation. If they are not healed, they are highly likely to continue to cause the same kinds of pain to others again and again and again. But in a lot of ways, there are few to no paths to absolution and redemption for a perpetrator. Many human cultures tend to be really good at condemnation and punishment, but these do not heal an abuser. They do not teach them new ways to behave or help the victim much if at all. If someone makes a mistake once--even something so horrible as murder--do they face a kind of eternal social purgatory for one mistake? Is there no way that they can atone and return to a healthy place in society?

I say, "Yes." But many people say, "No." No is the easy way out. It's the coward's way out. It eschews the pain and challenge of helping someone make amends, change behaviors, and deal with the messy emotions that all parties involved in a transgression (abused, abuser, any witnesses, and others) will go through. When we say, "No," it's like cutting off a hand that it is bleeding. It makes another wound, and then that wound generally will elicit another attempt to end the wounding. So a person tries to cut off that part of the arm. The wounding gets worse. A person can look at WWI as a prime example of not addressing wounds correctly. Many, many wounds were caused during that war, but the winners of that war sought to punish Germany for its actions rather than heal the wounds of the German people as well. In cutting off "the hand that caused the pain," they created new pain, and lo and behold, Hitler and the Nazis rise to power, which then brings about WWII and the Holocaust.

The truth of the matter is very simple: unaddressed pain will rise up again. The only sane thing a truly conscious person and a community can do is to learn how to help both survivors of pain and abusers to heal.

So this blog post is for those who have hurt others, those who have been hurt, and those who simply need to be part of a healing process to help with these reconciliations. Because it is only through reconciliation that an individual can become whole within themselves as well as reunited with society in a healthy way.

1. Realizing the Mistake and Taking Responsibility

Step one to atoning for pain that you caused another requires you to realize the mistake. I've mentioned some pretty heavy stuff like murder and war, but the mistake could have been something as simple as stealing your best friend's favorite toy when you were younger. The guilt of that may have been haunting you for some time, and now, it's time to deal with that guilt and any pain you caused your friend.

Before talking to the friend (if you're still in touch), you may want to find additional sources of support to help you in understanding your mistake and where it came from. You may want to journal about the situation to really look at what happened. This step is all about coming into full acceptance of what you did so that you can take full responsibility for your actions.

Taking Responsibility for Your Life

2. Investigating the Source of the Mistake

Actions are like the fruits of the tree. They are offshoots of a whole chain of events that have led up to the moment they were taken. Many times healing a transgressor/abuser is incomplete because they do not understand the roots of their actions. They just get punished and are told that a specific action is wrong. They don't get help in understanding from where a behavior arose.

For instance, if someone is growing up in a violent community, then violence is being taught to them every day of their lives. It's setting up the individual to take violent actions, and of course, being around lots of violence is constantly triggering. They're stuck in at an alert level that maintains readiness to fight or run from the situations that are going on. This kind of alertness can then show up in inappropriate situations where there is no real threat, but the individual is too stuck in fear to see it for what it is. If they've been beaten and abused themselves, then the tendency to lash out with violence is all set up to happen. The person is a powder keg waiting for the smallest of sparks to ignite.

The above example is one of many for those who make more violent transgressions against other people. But for anyone who feels they've wronged another, there was a string of events building up out of childhood that needs to be investigated so that you understand what the root issue is. When you know that, you can get to work on resolving the real issue.

3. Healing the Issue(s) that Caused the Mistake

Once one or several root issues (because it can be many) are identified, this is when the work gets real. This is a step that is often missed. Some people know why they did what they did, but they have no idea how to get the core issues out. That's also why simple punishment is largely ineffective. It doesn't teach people how to heal and to fully resolve the issue that caused the person to do what they did and may do again if it isn't resolved.

Now, there are countless blog posts on this spiritual awakening website dedicated to healing issues of all kinds. I recommend checking out the Starting Out section as well as the following blog post that has a list of healing topics to assist you if you're healing a transgression. The key things to understand is that this can be a long and messy process, but it can bring you greater peace and inner freedom if you are willing to do the work.

Spirituality Blogs About Healing

BTW, this is an awesome documentary about inner work. I highly recommend it.

The Work Documentary

4. Admitting Your Mistake and Asking for Forgiveness (When Possible)

Every transgression is different, but when possible it is important to admit the mistake to the person who was harmed. For something like the theft of a toy example earlier, that might be done via an email or phone call. If the transgression is more recent and there is still an active connection to the person, you could have the conversation in person. If the transgression was really serious like a murder, the admission and asking for forgiveness may be directed to the surviving family members, and it would very likely need to go through the appropriate legal channels so that everyone is safe. To be sure, other people may want to commit violence back on the transgressor for a very serious and permanent act like murder. But being killed would not serve anything. That kind of martyrdom would only continue the cycles of pain and suffering that people already live in. So safety is key for ALL participants in the serious transgressions.

Cycles of Pain and Suffering

To be sure, I'm using some very serious examples today, and I'm sure many of you don't have to deal with such things. If you're asking for forgiveness from your children and your spouse for having forgotten to pick up the kids from soccer practice, that's a moderately uncomfortable situation. But everyone is already under the same roof, so that's a matter of setting aside time together to talk things through. That example too can be a powerful learning process for children to see how a parent atones for their bad behavior, which is not always something parents are good at. Many try to always be right in the face of their children even when they are wrong. This creates all kinds of future problems. So this a space where healing a transgression with one's children also offers the added benefit of teaching the children how to address transgressions they may commit or future ones that may happen to them.

Finally, if no interaction is possible, then you ask for forgiveness from the Divine. I recommend having the full conversation that you need to have out loud or on paper to fully confess all the things you feel. You may have a close friend, spiritual teacher, or other confidante sit in the space as the person who was hurt. Then at the end, as sincerely as you can, ask for forgiveness. See what happens.

5. Sincerely Making Amends

Part of the forgiveness process may involve making amends before getting forgiven by the other person. Sometimes, forgiveness comes first, and then specific amends can be taken. However, taking specific actions to address the transgression is key.

Sometimes, the actions to make amends will be obvious. If you broke a vase, then you fix it or buy a new one. Other pains that people cause require different kinds of amends to the person and/or people who have been wronged. If a person has been correcting others in an attempt to make themselves feel superior for a long time, there's not a tangible thing to be given necessarily. It's not like paying a fine would make sense or something to that nature. Instead, this superiority issue leads to step six where the person has to practice new behaviors such as not interrupting, shouting over, judging, or whatever way they did to prove themselves right at the expense of others.

Most of all, the person who is atoning needs to be sincere. A true atonement process is not like being forced to pick up trash as a community service. In so many instances, such an action is not decided upon between the two parties (abused and abuser). It comes from someone else like a court, and it may lack any relevance to what the transgression actually was. So discussing with the other person (when possible) what s/he would like done as an appropriate amends is really helpful. It also can help the abused individual to fully heal, which is the best of all possibilities in atoning for pain you caused another. Then you do whatever is asked as sincerely and to the best of your abilities.

6. Practicing New, Corrected Behaviors

It should be said that sometimes those who have been hurt won't be ready to immediately forgive or will never forgive a transgressor. That is their choice. Your choice is to do your utmost to resolve your core issues and to take the actions you need to amend the situation. If the situation is something like having stolen things, then the old things get returned, or the person is reimbursed in some way. Doing these things are part of both truly admitting guilt and practicing new behaviors. Additionally, if the person's old behaviors were about taking things (aka stealing), then important new behaviors are needed. For example, volunteering and being of service would be new behaviors, and they would help to dissolve the old unhealthy behaviors by giving the person a clear replacement.

It is okay to not get these new behaviors perfectly right. Diligence and dedication are important to really truly embrace new ways of acting. For a time, you may still return to some old habits. Obviously, the more egregious ones like physical violence must be resisted at all times, and if this is difficult, then you should find additional supports in going deeper in inner work to fully resolve violent tendencies. However, the more benign backslides can happen like in the over-criticizing people example. It's okay. But that also means there is more healing work to be done to ensure that you stop hurting others or hurting yourself. That means, this process of atonement will at times ask you to return to steps 2 and 3 to ensure that you are fully releasing the issues that caused you to hurt another or multiple people.

The Spiritual Backslide

7. Re-introduction to the Wronged Person (When Possible) / Society

At the end of this, it's important that when possible a transgressor can be received anew. Unlike a lot of the way society handles transgressions and crimes of all kinds, there needs to be a social mechanism for reintegration with society and oftentimes the individual who is wronged. They need to be accepted as a new person in many ways.

If someone who has sexually abused their partner has truly done the first six steps and the two people still want to be together, there needs to be space to redevelop the relationship. Reintroduction is more than just saying, "Hey my partner is fixed!" It'll likely require changes in behavior on the part of the other person too. There will be a way that both people need to redefine the relationship so that it can be healthy, and if they do this, the relationship could be far stronger and more loving than ever before.

Other situations will require more work than some. Society needs to find space in its collective heart to allow a truly redeemed murderer to get a job without shutting them out. That requires much more work socially and legislatively. But doing so means having someone be a healthy part of society once more and will further cement the healing process. When this is not allowed, people get pushed back into the shadows even after serving time in a prison and hopefully doing the above work that I have mentioned. That makes becoming a repeat offender almost a certainty, and everyone suffers more because of this.

I think one of the most wonderful examples of deep healing is in the following story about Rwanda after genocide. If people there can be befriend the murderer of their brother and so many others, then people anywhere can do it.

If Rwandans can forgive killings, we can forgive the waitress

Dedication, Dedication, Dedication

Once again, the key in all of this is dedication. This is a messy process. There is no certainty in healing, and all parties are likely to want to fall back to their most basic ego programs. So we all have to be dedicated in demanding healing of transgressors, in transgressors demanding healing for themselves, and in creating space for people to have atoned and be welcomed back into the heart of society. If we do this hard work, there will be countless benefits to all of us and a far more peaceful and kind society than we can imagine today.


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