I can forgive others and forgive myself. Forgiveness is for the forgiver. It is about taking my life back and moving on in peace with a little more wisdom and compassion. Forgiveness releases restraints and ensures that our lives are not consumed or dominated by intense stubbornness, anger, hostility, guilt, shame and thoughts of revenge. Forgiveness is a way to set myself free; a way to get free of a past that may be keeping me locked in a cycle of self-destructive behavior. Forgiveness is a way to lighten my emotional load a day at a time; a way to stop beating myself up. Forgiveness is a journey that takes time. It is a deliberate effort to replace negative emotions of resentment, hostility, anger, hatred toward the aggressor(s) with positive emotions and compassion. It requires the ability to view behaviors from multiple perspectives and reduce the preoccupation with the desire for revenge.
Forgiveness does not condone the behavioral acts of a perpetrator, but it does help overcome the sense of being a victim. Instead of mentally replaying one’s hurt, an individual can change his/her “grievous story” and seek other ways to achieve one’s goals. Forgiveness is not reconciliation or a re-establishing of a relationship with the perpetrator(s). A person can forgive and still have painful feelings (Robert Enright, (2001).
The act of forgiveness, which is a process, not a one-time event, improves one’s physical health, alleviates depression, lessens anger and lowers stress hormones and blood pressure, and improves relationship health. Forgiveness is the beginning of a journey of letting go that may take some time. One forgives to quiet their angry feelings, to alter destructive thoughts, to improve their relationships and to make peace with themselves. The important thing is to forgive in one’s mind and heart.
People of faith often evidence forgiveness following a betrayal or a victimizing experience. For instance, the Amish of Lancaster, Pennsylvania attended the funeral of the man who committed suicide after murdering five girls in an Amish school house. Their faith guided them through the painful period of mourning. Another example of forgiveness by the Amish community came when a member of their church pulled off a Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme that resulted in the loss of millions of dollars. For many Amish investors, they expressed a willingness to forgive.
But a caution about forgiveness needs to be kept in mind. Forgiveness is a process that can be either beneficial or harmful, depending upon the relationship in which it occurs. For example, women who were physically abused by their partner and who were forgiving were more likely to return to their abusive partner and put themselves at risk for re-victimization. The act of forgiveness should not blind one to the need to assess risk. In some situations forgiveness can contribute to increased marital satisfaction, while in other contexts the act of forgiveness can backfire. With this caveat in mind, let’s consider ways to engage in acts of forgiveness.
How To: Engage in Forgiveness
- In order to forgive you must first tell the story of what happened, grieve it fully and then turn away from grudges, bitterness, and the kind of ruminating that amplifies the story and gives it too much replay time. Give up the need for revenge, but seek a just resolution.
- Recognize that forgiveness is a form of enlightened self-interest, a gift that you give yourself by learning whatever good lessons you can from an event.
“Life is not fair, so get over thinking that it should be. Bad things happen to good people all the time. But as Stephen Post and his colleagues have noted, “‘Good things also happen to good people, who forgive, share and give back’” (Post, et al, 2007).
- Think of someone you have forgiven or who has forgiven you in the past. What did you/he/she do? What did you/he/she say and not say? Can you use any of these strategies with others or on yourself? You are in charge of your rate of healing, your journey to resilience and personal growth.
- Consider the following. Your best friend comes to you and admits to you that he/she has done something of which he/she is very ashamed. He/she is not able to “undo” what happened. He/she feels alone and afraid. He/she feels very guilty and thinks he/she should be punished forever for what he/she has done (or failed to do). He/she wants you to do the punishing. What would you do? What would you say? How would you decide? If you are feeling guilty or ashamed about something that you did or did not do would you use any of this advice on yourself?
A Forgiveness Exercise
- Write down the name of someone who has hurt you in a significant way.
- What has this person done or not done to hurt you?
- What is keeping you from forgiving this person? What are the costs and benefits that contribute to your stubbornness to forgive and move on?
- What are the pros and cons, the potential benefits, of reaching out to this person?
- What would this person need to do to earn your forgiveness?
- What would you do to foster the forgiveness process with this person? What is one small first step you can take (a call, a letter, an email, ask an intermediary person to communicate your wishes, send a card, gift, flowers, arrange for a meeting, and the like)? In what ways can you show that you are a bigger person?
- What have you done to make peace with yourself in order to come to terms with your hurt, anger, stubbornness?
- Complete the following sentences:
- “Someone I will have to make amends to is . . . ”
- “Someone from whom I would like forgiveness is . . . ”
- “If I forgive myself and show compassion, I will no longer feel . . . ”
- “If I forgive myself (and others), it means that . . . ”
- “If I forgive myself and others, my relationships will . . . ”
- “One way I can stop ‘beating myself up’ is to . . . ”
- “I can stop holding grudges against others and myself by . . . ”
- Beware of what Janis Abrams Spring has called “cheap forgiveness” in her book, How Can I Forgive You?, which is characterized as offering a quick and easy pardon with no processing of emotion and no coming to terms with the injury. This may take the form of a superficial, unilateral pardon and an attempt at peacekeeping. Cheap forgiveness may preserve the relationship, but not lead to reconciliation.
- Is it worth it to harbor grudges forever?
- What is the impact, the toll, the price you and others pay for your stubbornness to not forgive, for your failure of compassion and acceptance? Is this the price you want to pay?
Visit the website www.learningtoforgive.com.
“Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
“Our brain is hard wired to remember painful events. But we do not have to forget in order to forgive.”
“The ability to forgive and the ability to love are the weapons God has given us to enable us to live fully, bravely and meaningfully in this less-than-perfect world.”
—Rabbi Harold Kushner
“Forgiveness has been found to produce benefits for the forgiver leading to a lasting inner peace. Forgiving does not mean condoning the other person’s actions, nor minimizing the hurt that those actions caused. If you decided to forgive, there is good reason to believe that you will feel much better in the long run. It is in your hands and no one else’s-that may be the real power of forgiveness.”
—Robert Nay, Taking Charge of Anger
“Forgiveness and acceptance are a form of self-care, a generous and healing gift to oneself, accomplished by the self for the self.”
—Janis Abrams Spring