In this post, we explore the concept of forgiveness…What is it? Who benefits? Why is it important? And, most importantly, how do we do it?
The idea of forgiveness is a difficult thing. When we have been disappointed or hurt by someone else our instinct is often to recoil and protect ourselves. When a person close to us breaks our trust, the last thing we want to do is forgive them. On the other hand, when we have hurt others, forgiving ourselves can be just as difficult.
However, in order for true healing to happen, walking the path to forgiveness is a necessary journey.
What Is Forgiveness?
When we think of forgiveness, we may think of cheesy movies where by plot’s end, mortal enemies have become best friends–the closing scene showing them walking hand-in-hand into the sunset. While this could happen in real life, forgiveness doesn’t usually look like this.
One way to describe forgiveness is to point out what it does not do. According to Ron Pevny, in his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging, forgiveness does not…
- Mean that we have to ignore our hurt feelings.
- Change the past, or assume that we have to forget what happened.
- Mean that we have lost and the offender has won.
- Excuse the act that did the wounding.
- Absolve the offender of karmic or legal consequences.
- Mean that we will resume a relationship with the other person–especially if it is not safe (emotionally or physically) to do so.
What forgiveness does is to provide the opportunity for healing and being able to move on with our life, without being limited by what happened. According to Buddhist philosophy, “Holding on to resentment is like picking up a hot coal with our hand with the intention of finding an opportunity to throw it at the one who has hurt us.”.
In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu states,
“Forgiveness is the only way to heal ourselves and be free from the past. Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us. We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped. Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailor. When we forgive, we take back control of our own fate and our feelings. We become our own liberator.”
When we can forgive, we are able to stop labeling our self as a “victim” and move forward from a place of growth.
Holding on to negative events that lead to ongoing feelings of resentment, anger, hostility may undermine our health. In one study, psychologists asked people to think about someone who has hurt them, while monitoring their heart rate, facial muscles and sweat glands. When people remembered these grudges, their heart rate and blood pressure increased. However, when they were asked to think about forgiving these people, their stress responses returned to normal (Book of Joy, pg. 237).
Steps to Forgiveness
While it seems obvious that forgiveness is a good thing–for our physical and mental health–how do we do it? Especially since rehashing the juicy details of past hurts can provide an addictive energy rush.
Pevny breaks down the path to forgiveness into the following five steps:
- Uncovering and feeling what happened. Before we can forgive, we need to be clear about what we are forgiving. It’s important to explore the actual event–what were the circumstances? Who said what? What emotions did you feel? Take your time and be gentle with yourself.
- Committing to forgive. Forgiveness is a choice–sometimes a difficult one. When we have held on to resentments for a long time, they become part of our story. Forgiveness is choosing a new story.
- Humanizing the offender. Forgiveness begins to happen when we are able to separate the person from the action. To do this requires compassion and the ability to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. Maybe there were things going on that you didn’t know?
- Honestly looking at your role in relation to the situation. This is especially challenging when the emotions are still raw, so it’s useful to use your logic vs. emotions. Human relationships are never simple. As my grandmother used to say “It takes two to tango.”
- Forgiving and continuing to forgive. Forgiving is an act of will–we choose. This act will play out differently for each person. For some, it’s a private, quiet letting go. For others, they want to meet with the person involved and voice their forgiveness. No matter how it manifests, forgiveness is an ongoing process.
What If I Need to Forgive Myself?
When we have hurt others, the feelings of guilt and shame that we carry can be overwhelming. While we may be able to show compassion to others, doing so to ourselves is more difficult–if not impossible as we’re our own harshest critics.
Pevny suggests that the five steps are applicable to those working on self-forgiveness, and may include specifically asking for forgiveness from those we have hurt (if possible and appropriate). However, sometimes the person we have hurt is ourselves. Pevny writes:
“In a great many cases, what needs self-forgiveness is not harm done to others but personal weaknesses or perceived choices or actions that we feel have damaged our own lives. Self-forgiveness depends upon our willingness to carefully examine our choices and actions and, in many cases, acknowledge that we did the best we could with the awareness we had at the time. If we see that we did not do the best we could, it requires that we use our regrets not to berate ourselves but as important guideposts on our journeys into a positive, conscious future. The biggest catalysts for our growth are often (perhaps mostly) what we learn from our mistakes, weaknesses and poor choices.”
Rewriting our Stories…Sometimes We Need Help
Whether we need to forgive ourselves or others, walking on this path gives us the opportunity to rewrite our story–and sometimes the stories of others. And we know that the journey isn’t easy. Self-care is important. If you start on this journey and feel that you are losing your way, please reach out to a trusted friend, family member or professional to provide support. Sometimes, our hurts are too big walk up to on our own.
And now…a quick lesson in self-compassion. Enjoy!