Here’s some insight into the concept of forgiveness to help you along your journey.
What is Forgiveness?
To define a word or condition, a good first step is to say what it is NOT.
Forgiveness is NOT:
- Condoning behavior that is unacceptable and hurtful.
- “Forgetting” (or attempting to forget) behavior and/or events that happened.
- Letting someone “off the hook” for their behavior.
- Absolving the perpetrator of sin with no earthly consequences.
- Superficially deciding that all is done and forgiven. This actually bypasses the work that is required in the forgiveness process.
- An obligation.
I have searched far and wide for my own definition of forgiveness. I explored concepts, philosophies, and theories from different cultures and religions before I came to the following: Forgiveness is a process of feeling, understanding, and letting go that is a gift to one’s self. Again, I emphasize that forgiveness is a process, not an event. Additionally, forgiveness has little – almost nothing – to do with the other person.
Freedom from the chains of anger and resentment
Do I have to forgive in order to be free from hurts and/or abuse?
The answer to this question is a simple, but not simplistic, “yes.” As adults, we must forgive in order to be truly free of seeing ourselves as victims. Victim identification keeps us bound to the person, situation, or institution that hurt us. Additionally, it keeps us in a loop of blame, shame, self-perpetration (such as addictive behaviors and self-abandonment), dishonesty with ourselves and others, and the unconscious seeking of destructive relationships. The process of moving from victim, to survivor, to thriver allows us to move forward and live our lives to the fullest.
I have witnessed many clients freed from the bitterness, shame, guilt, hurt, and loneliness they had carried for ages because of their engagement in the forgiveness process. They now have healthy relationships with themselves and others. You can’t bypass or skip over the process. As poet Robert Frost wrote in his 1915 poem A Servant to Servants, “The best way out is always through.”
How do I actually forgive? What is expected of me in this process?
It is important to remember that the process of forgiveness will look and feel different for everyone. You have the right to make choices, set limits, and create boundaries that titrate your experience. You get to do this at your own pace. Here are some key actions to consider as you work on forgiving those who have hurt you.
- Strive to gain objective understanding of the hurtful behavior/situation, and remember that you can do things differently right now.
- Truly know yourself and what makes you tick—your motives, beliefs, behaviors, dreams, and feelings.
- Identify, label, and express your feelings. It is important to do this in a safe way and in a safe place so that you do not – perhaps unintentionally – further hurt yourself or someone else. I also strongly recommend you work with a guide, such as a mental health professional.
- Name painful beliefs about yourself, others, the world, and maybe even God (or whatever spiritual concept you choose).
- Acknowledge emotions, ride their waves, and let them pass. Emotions last about 30-90 seconds and come in waves. You can do almost anything for 30-90 seconds!
- Allow yourself to grieve losses, such as those of your innocence, hopes, dreams, and significant relationships. Grieving is painful, but it takes us to the place of acceptance.
- Create a “payoff and cost” list to identify what you get out of and what consequences you experience from the beliefs, feelings, and behaviors that cause pain.
- Decide to let go. When emotions come up, it can be easy and almost natural to get “stuck” and languish in them. Somewhere in the process, making the conscious decision to let go will be crucial to moving forward.
- Set limits that are self-care directed, not meant for punishment or revenge. This includes if, how, and when you have contact with those who have harmed you.
- Practice being gentle and kind to yourself and others.
- Share your experience, strength, and hope with others who have experienced similar hurts and pain.
In order to make the most of your experience, check in with yourself regularly to remain in tune with your emotions. Recognize when you have made progress and continue on the path diligently and at the pace that works best for you!