Chicago Lakeview Psychologist Talks About Forgiveness and Healing

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That’s not to say forgiveness is ever easy

By: Dr. Tyler Fortman

January 21, 1995.  Azim Khamisa was at home with his wife.  Their son, Tariq, was delivering pizza in order to help pay for his tuition and living expenses at San Diego State University.  As Tariq approached a house for a delivery, he was shot and killed by a teenager as part of a gang initiation known as “Jacking the Pizza Man.”  Tariq was 20.

Most of us would respond to this kind of tragedy with resentment, anger, and hatred.  Often times events like these ruin the lives of all involved.  In fact, even much smaller slights (or perceived slights) lead to resentment and subsequent negative responses for the person that struggles to forgive.

“There is an enormous physical burden to being hurt and disappointed,” says Dr. Karen Swartz, Director of the Mood Disorders Adult Consultation Clinic at John’s Hopkins.  Research out of the Stanford Forgiveness Project also indicates that when you don’t forgive, your body releases the chemicals of a stress response.

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Your body stays in a constant state of stress, continuing to release adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine.  Your physical health is put at risk by chronic stress (heart disease, weight gain, decreased effectiveness of your immune system, etc.); but moreso, there are tremendous psychological consequences.

Consider this – every time you think about the situation or person you resent (or the error you made that you just can’t seem to forgive), your body releases more stress chemicals.  Some of these chemicals, namely cortisol and norepinephrine, paralyze your brain in a sort of “no thinking” zone.  Your creativity and problem-solving are limited.

Overtime, this leads to feeling helpless and like a victim – further perpetuating negative feelings and outcomes.  Although it’s tempting to wish the slight never happened, the only real way to free yourself from the cycle is to forgive those that have hurt you.


This is exactly what Tariq’s father did.  Azim Khamisa recognized that there were more victims in the situation than only his son.  He even identified Tariq’s murderer as a victim of societal factors that encouraged the violence.  Azim refused to let the situation take more from his life than it already had, and knew that the only way he could do this was through forgiveness of his son’s killer.

So, he did just that.

Azim Khamisa began by forgiving the family of his son’s killer and later the teen, himself.  Then, he went on to build a relationship his son’s killer and, with the help of both families, established the Tariq Khamisa Foundation aimed at stopping “kids from killing kids.”

Do you struggle to forgive yourself?  Are there other people that you struggle to forgive?  Maybe parents who failed to meet your needs?  Maybe a past partner that cheated on you?  Maybe a friend or business colleague that stabbed you in the back?  Have you considered the way that resentment punishes you?

Consider forgiveness like battling a porcupine – the harder you fight, the more quills and needles get embedded into your body.  When you stop fighting, you can start healing. Try these steps:

  1. Accept that forgiveness is for you and not for anyone else!
  2. Differentiate forgiveness from condoning the hurtful actions. people  often believe a myth that if they forgive, they are saying that the actions are okay.  They are not.  You also don’t have to reconcile the relationship with the person that hurt you.  You are only looking to acknowledge what happened and find peace.
  3. Reflect on what happened and exactly how you feel. Acknowledge the feelings to yourself and to several people that you trust.
  4. Stay present. The majority of hurt comes from situations or people that hurt you a short (or even quite a long) time ago.  Strengthen these skills with a mindfulness
  5. Notice yourself using the word “should.” Shoulds often indicate expectations of yourself and others.  After you recognize your use of “should” reframe the thought as simply fact and facts alone.  Stick to the facts (e.g., “John did not call on my birthday.”) and then continually acknowledge the associated feeling.  This process helps one to accept.
  6. Practice self-soothing.
  7. Work to get to the things that you want. You have the power to decide how you spend your energy.  Don’t waste it focusing on the way you were slighted (or slighted someone else) and instead invest in your future goals.
  8. Reframe your grievance story to remind yourself of the power you have over your own life (others actions don’t get to dictate your life) by choosing to forgive.

Consider the wisdom of Malachy McCourt, “Resentment is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”  Choose to control your own life instead of letting it be controlled by others’ actions or your previous choices.  You’ll be glad you did.