This is an important time of year for the Jewish people. It’s our New Year and a time when we look back and take ownership of our behaviors, with honesty and humility. We also begin to identify and commit to new resolutions that will move us forward in our own personal and spiritual growth as well as in our relationships with others. It’s a time when we ask our higher power to forgive us for the ways in which we have deliberately or inadvertently hurt or harmed ourselves and other people. The theme of forgiveness is an integral part of our holiday season.
As a trauma specialist, I am often working with clients to help them explore and navigate their ambivalence about forgiving the people who mistreated them by either inflicting emotional, physical, or sexual harm or by acting as non-protective bystanders and not advocating for their safety or wellbeing. The decision to forgive the people who have hurt them is a very personal one, and there is no specific time limit on the process. It’s a journey that not every trauma survivor chooses to take. My belief is that therapists should not force clients to forgive their abusers or even imply that healing cannot happen without that forgiveness. We should be non-judgmental and impartial guides, allowing clients to process their feelings and come to their own conclusions.
But I’d like to suggest that there is another aspect to forgiveness that focuses on the extent to which we all, at times, need to be forgiven by others. As human beings, we are all capable of speaking unkind words, minimizing someone else’s pain, turning away from someone in need, hurting or even shaming a person with a bruising or disapproving look, or taking advantage of someone else’s vulnerabilities. As important as it is to weigh the pros and cons of forgiving someone else, it’s equally important to be honest and humble enough to acknowledge our own shortcomings. This self-inventory is most effective when we do it with compassion and humility. It’s worth taking the time to reflect on the meaningful relationships in our lives and focus on our choice of words, our actions and inactions, and the insensitive non-verbal communication that may have caused pain or harm. Finding ways to make amends increases personal growth, strengthens relationships, and promotes an overall sense of kindness in the world. And we can start by asking someone on our life to forgive us.
Even when we find the courage to ask for forgiveness we cannot predict or control whether or not the other person grants it. That’s why it’s equally important to have the capacity to forgive ourselves. If we can make peace with our past behaviors, putting them in their proper perspective, recognizing that we are fallible, committing to new behaviors, and consciously working to not repeat old mistakes, then we are certainly within our rights to forgive ourselves. In fact, it’s the one thing we can control. Self-forgiveness inevitably increases self-compassion and sets us up to make kinder, healthier choices in life. Relentless self-recrimination evokes shame and that never motivates us to authentically change our ways.
In what ways have you been able to make amends with those who you might have harmed; and how has that made your feel?