Learning to forgive is a journey
By: Alexandra DeWoskin, LCSW
I have always struggled with the meaning and process of forgiveness. I’ve wondered does forgiveness mean letting someone off the hook for wronging me. Because that has often felt wrong or unfair to me. I’ve heard powerful stories from people who have “forgiven” someone who has done wrong to them or someone they loved.
Are they going to ask that person over for dinner next? But, many years ago, I watched a powerful Oprah show on forgiveness. I was skeptical. Was this going to have a purely religious slant or speak to everyone be them spiritual or not? Was it going to be about making friends with your tormentor? Was it going to be about letting people off the hook so they don’t have to own their behavior? It was about none of those things.
The premise was…three women who had all faced horrendous events in their lives caused by another person. One woman’s entire family was murdered as she hid under a bed. And, she was talking about forgiveness, but in a different way than I had ever heard. She said, forgiveness was for her and her only.
She had spent the years since the incident terrified, unable to work or be social, fighting off depression and anxiety, and unable to leave her house. So, she decided one day she wanted her life back. And, the way to do that was to stop letting the murderer and the incident continue to control her and her unwanted feelings. What?! She had all the power?! He controlled the incident, but she controlled her relationship to the incident ever since. Since, I’m always trying to find ways to be empowered, that story and new definition started my quest to master forgiveness.
Nearly everyone has been hurt by the actions or words of another. These wounds can leave you with lasting feelings of anger, bitterness or even vengeance. And it is perfectly health and normal to react emotionally to wrongs. Sometimes we need to hold anger for a while because it can be a powerful motivator helping us rise above victimization and to fight our way back from the most devastating of traumas.
When you’re hurt by someone you love and trust, you might become angry, sad or confused. If you dwell on hurtful events or situations, grudges filled with resentment, vengeance and hostility can take root. If you allow negative feelings to crowd out positive feelings, you might find yourself swallowed up by your own bitterness or sense of injustice.
You might bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience; become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can’t enjoy the present; become depressed or anxious; feel that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you’re at odds with your spiritual beliefs; lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.
Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment, thoughts of revenge, and other negative and sometimes paralyzing feelings. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing the act.
The act that hurt or offended you will always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, more positive parts of your life. And, yes for some, forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you in an effort to relinquish our anger towards them. The point of forgiveness is to bring back peace that helps you go on with life.
There are health benefits of forgiveness as well. People who can make this mental shift may benefit in ways they didn’t anticipate—namely, by living longer. Continually nursing those negative feelings keeps your stress levels high, thus exacting a cost on one’s health.
Forgiveness is positively associated with better health in terms of the heart, hormones, and immune system. There are also psychological benefits to forgiveness as people who forgive are less likely to be as depressed and anxious, and more likely to be happy. These physical and psychological qualities could all be key in predicting a longer life.
Now there is conditional forgiveness and unconditional forgiveness. The problem with conditional forgiveness is that it requires some sort of response from the person who’s wronged you.
And this isn’t always possible which could result in decades of waiting or anticipating that conditions are met before finally getting over something especially if the person who’s hurt you doesn’t admit wrong or doesn’t speak of his or her sorrow or is unavailable via distance or death. And, forgiveness doesn’t always guarantee reconciliation.
Reconciliation might be impossible if the offender has died or is unwilling to communicate with you. Or simply sometimes reconciliation just might not be appropriate. However, forgiveness is possible — even if reconciliation isn’t.
Many religions teach that forgiveness is the only fair and compassionate thing to do, since we have all sinned and we have all hurt others. Thus, this would be unconditional forgiveness. Whether motivated by religion or by your own need to feel better, with unconditional forgiveness, you’re making the choice to move on without waiting for anything from the other person.
Let’s look at forgiveness from the angle of taking our power back from those we’ve allowed to control us via their actions.
Forgiveness is not about taking away the responsibility of others to feel remorse or for ourselves to feel bad about something we’ve done wrong, but it is about how long to we let the negativity rule. When you forgive someone, you make the choice to give up your desire for revenge and feelings of resentment.
You stop judging the person who caused you the hurt. Instead of revenge, resentment, and judgment, you show generosity, compassion, and kindness to self and others. You substitute your negative with positive feelings, thoughts, and behavior. You don’t forget that the offense occurred nor do you excuse it.
Letting go of grudges and bitterness can make way for happiness, health and peace. As you let go of grudges, you’ll no longer define your life by how you’ve been hurt. Forgiveness can lead to:
- Healthier relationships
- Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
- Less anxiety, stress and hostility
- Lower blood pressure
- Fewer symptoms of depression
- Stronger immune system
- Improved heart health
- Higher self-esteem
Forgiveness is a commitment to a process of change. Consider the value of forgiveness and its importance in your life at a given time, reflect on the facts of the situation, how you’ve reacted, and how this combination has affected your life, health and well-being, actively choose to forgive the person who’s offended you, when you’re ready, move away from your role as victim and release the control and power the offending person and situation have had in your life.
You might also try to consider the situation from the other person’s point of view, ask yourself why he or she would behave in such a way…would you would have reacted similarly if you faced the same situation?, reflect on times you’ve hurt others and on those who’ve forgiven you, Journal, pray or use guided meditation — or talk with a person you’ve found to be wise and compassionate, such as a spiritual leader, a mental health provider, or an impartial loved one or friend, be aware that forgiveness is a process and even small hurts may need to be revisited and forgiven over and over again.
Finally, let’s speak to self-forgiveness especially when guilt and shame have taken over how we feel about ourselves. The first step is to honestly assess and acknowledge the wrongs you’ve done and how those wrongs have affected others. At the same time, avoid judging yourself too harshly. You’re human, and you’ll make mistakes.
If you’re truly sorry for something you’ve said or done, consider admitting it to those you’ve harmed. Speak of your sincere sorrow or regret, and specifically ask for forgiveness — without making excuses.
Remember, you can’t force someone to forgive you. Others also need to move to forgiveness in their own time. Whatever the outcome, commit to treating others with compassion, empathy and respect including yourself.
Forgiving yourself allows you to forgive others more readily when they err, and also accompanies a resolution to change one’s behavior and act differently in the future.
Be kinder to yourself and change the habit of blaming yourself for making a mistake and accept that you too are error-prone. Know that perfection will not be attained because it’s undefinable and therefore doesn’t exist.
Acknowledge your wrong and accept responsibility for it, experience any feelings of guilt and regret, and finally overcome those feelings (i.e., self-forgiveness), and, in doing so, experience a change away from self-punishment toward self-acceptance.
Getting another person to change his or her actions, behavior or words isn’t the point of forgiveness. Think of forgiveness more about how it can change your life — by bringing you peace, happiness, and emotional and spiritual healing. Forgiveness can take away the power the other person continues to wield in your life.