ABCs of Positivity: F Is for Forgiveness
The act of forgiveness means releasing the desire to punish someone for a (perceived?) wrongdoing. When we forgive, we commit to overlooking the offense and open the possibility of reestablishing a positive relationship with the person who done us wrong – the idea being that when you forgive, you dissolve all ill feelings toward that person.*
Put in those looming terms, it’s surprising any of us ever forgive anyone.
I’m going to save the topic of our society’s seeming addiction to looking for reasons to be offended for another post – and come at this from a sense of true hurt and the desire to feel better, which is what forgiveness ultimately allows us to do.
That’s what a wrongdoing – perceived or intended – does, right? It hurts us. It may be our feelings that get hurt. Perhaps we have been physically harmed. Maybe we’ve suffered damage to property. Things are relatively easy to replace – unless they are irreplaceable. Regardless of the episode that caused us pain or distress, the healthy response is to eventually want to feel better, and the act of forgiveness opens that door.
A good friend of mine who is smart person, seemingly tuned in to spiritual ideals, has a bizarre (to me) fascination with the idea of revenge. Quite the opposite of forgiveness, revenge means retaliating against someone who has wronged us with intent to inflict an equal amount of pain. This friend has spoken with surprising regularity about her desire to exact revenge in response to hurts she has experienced – or advised me to do so when I’ve shared stories about people who have caused me distress.
Never having been a grudge-holder, I doubt I’d find much solace or satisfaction in getting back at someone. I do occasionally stomp around in the kitchen when my husband hasn’t loaded or emptied the dishwasher for a number of consecutive days. We don’t have any formal assignment or schedule – whoever doesn’t cook generally cleans up, but not always. That’s probably the extent of my feelings of wanting to get even.
But what if you were severely hurt or injured or traumatized? What if someone committed a serious offense that turned your life on its ear, even momentarily? What do you want from that person? An apology, perhaps. Maybe an explanation. But do you want to hurt them back? And what if you do? Do you act on that impulse? I hope not – but how do you get over the anger? How do you calm down in that person’s presence? It’s worse – by far – when the person who hurt you is someone close to you. How do even consider resuming the relationship you had prior to this episode or event?
Because we’re human, we all experience both sides of the forgiveness paradigm. Sometimes we’re the ones who need to do the forgiving. Sometimes we’re the ones who are seeking forgiveness.
How to Forgive When It’s Particularly Challenging
(1) Realize it’s really not about the other person. Forgiveness means allowing yourself to move forward in your life. Holding on to anger and hurt is bad for you – spiritually, mentally, and physically. You get to set the terms of your forgiveness, but if it’s authentic (that is, if you really mean it), you actually have to commit to letting the hurt go – for yourself and your own peace of mind.
(2) You don’t have to do it instantly. It may take some time to grow into the idea of forgiving a person who’s hurt or harmed you. Maybe you do it in degrees. Practice some breathing techniques so you don’t freak out when you remember the incident. Create an affirmation to replace “I hate them” if you experience intense anger when you think of that person.
(3) Are there pros / cons to forgiving? Again, this really comes back to you. Are you benefiting from staying angry or sad or frustrated? Are you every day nursing the wound or are you really trying to feel better? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to forgiveness. Maybe that person is always a jackass, so this behavior wasn’t surprising, though it was still hurtful. Maybe that person is the one you love most in the world, so the hurt seems unbearable. Either way – they will benefit from your forgiveness, but you will benefit more.
(4) Are you able to empathize with the other person? Can you put yourself in their shoes? Do you know why they did what they did? Have you ever done something similar – even if it was a very long time ago or the degree of severity was quite different? Is that person repentant? If they are truly sorry for what they did, is there still a benefit to holding onto the anger and resentment?
(5) Were you in any way culpable? Sometimes we give people permission to treat us badly. We probably don’t realize it at the time – but we can set the other person up to misbehave when we don’t put our foot down early enough. I know I set the tone for some really challenging behavior with my son’s father. He asked me out for New Year’s Eve, and when I hadn’t heard from him by 4 p.m., I called him – instead of making other plans and being unavailable. It was our first date, and I taught him right then that I would put up with a lot of bullshit. Before I could forgive him, I had to learn to forgive myself.
(6) Realize that forgiveness means you can focus on the present and let the past go. Holding onto anger and resentment means we are stuck in the past. Reliving the hurt again and again is akin to self-torture. Would you do that to your pet or your child or your best friend, make them relive a painful episode again and again? Then why would you want to do it to yourself?
Reaching for forgiveness instead of revenge or holding a grudge can be life-changing. If you want more peace and ownership of your feelings, forgiveness is a really good way to get there.
Maybe you want to forgive, but you feel like you just can’t let it go. You can. You can breathe through it. You can pray. You can meditate. You can use an affirmation. You can do something to distract yourself. You are powerful – and you can allow forgiveness to work in your life.
I recommend two books on the topic of forgiveness:
The Grief Recovery Handbook, by John W James and Russell Friedman. This is a great resource if the person you need to forgive has passed away.
Radical Forgiveness, by Colin Tipping. This will give you the tools for lasting forgiveness.