Part of why we are often reluctant to forgive others may be because we have the wrong idea about what it really means to forgive. Here’s what it is NOT: forgetting, running away, caving in, condoning hurtful or harmful actions, letting the wrongdoer off the hook. In fact, rather than making forgiving synonymous with forgetting- think of it as a new way of remembering. Remembering with objectivity, compassion, and newfound inner peace.
The Greek root word for forgiveness is “to set free.” But it’s not about setting free the other person. It’s about setting yourself free- from hatred, bitterness, or ties to the past that keep you stuck. It’s about no longer being controlled by the anger, or letting it rule your thoughts and behavioral choices. Ironically, forgiving someone shouldn’t be about them- it should always be about YOU.
If you are at a place in your life where you are contemplating forgiving someone, consider these possible steps as you travel down that path. First, fully feel and validate your pain: acknowledge all of the ways in which the pain has manifested for you emotionally: anger, sadness, betrayal, shock, resentment, fear, abandonment, hurt. Then find ways to process your feelings with people you trust to get support, feedback, guidance, or a witness to your pain. Explore the reasons why you are so bothered by the offense. There may be very legitimate reasons, or it may be that the weight you are giving the offense is heavier than the offense itself. Some people actually don’t remember why they are angry- the feeling just takes on a life of its own. Focus on the fact that the power is not in what has happened to you- it’s what you do with what has happened to you. What do you want to do with your pain? What meaning can you attach to it? How can you use your pain to move forward? Be open to re-framing the meaning of what has happened and what you want to do with it. Maybe you need to de-personalize it. Maybe you can shift from anger to empathy for the person who hurt you as you recognize that their actions are really about their limitations and not about you. It is just as important, however, to give yourself permission to not forgive for as long as you feel that way. Ask yourself what the impact will be if you never forgive. What does not forgiving keep you from in other arenas of your life?
And finally, imagine how anything in your life would be different if you did forgive. Is it worth it? Does it improve something in your life? Your health? Your ability to trust and be close to others? Your sense of yourself? How and where your energy gets expended? Forgiveness can be one of the hardest things to master in our relationships with other people and within ourselves. It’s not easy to do, but finding the courage to work on it can truly set you free. Please share with us your experiences in helping clients move towards forgiveness in their lives.