Some of the ideas discussed in this post are of a sensitive nature. So before proceeding, I’d like to make it clear that I am not qualified to offer psychological advice or seeking to do so here. I am simply sharing what I have learned from personal experience in the hope that it might be of help and comfort to another.
If you feel like you have problems or issues that are too great for you to handle by yourself, you may want to seek the help of an experienced counsellor or qualified mental health practitioner.
Also, I’d like to make it absolutely clear that I am not condoning or excusing any behaviour that is harmful, abusive or illegal.
What is Forgiveness?
We all ‘kinda sorta’ know what forgiveness is, but let’s make things clear, so we know we’re all on the same page.
Forgiveness is making peace with someone, over something that happened in the past, where you suffered in some way as a result of their words or actions.
It is making the decision to release the hurt and the anger that surrounds the situation. It also means giving up the desire to hurt or punish the other person, in return for what they did.
At the heart of it, forgiveness boils down to making a change in the way you feel about the person and the situation, and therefore, your future intentions about them – you will no longer wish them ill.
Forgiveness can happen in a single transaction or it can be a process. You can choose to forgive all at once, or a little bit at a time, according to your ability and the way you feel. There is no right or wrong, and you are in control.
What It Is Not
Forgiving someone does not mean you condone their behaviour. If they harmed you in some way, then what they did still isn’t right. The fact that you forgive them doesn’t change this in any way.
Also, forgiveness doesn’t require that you be willing to endure any more wrongdoing or ill-treatment from any person. In no way does it mean that you have to become anybody’s doormat or continue to be a victim. So if you think that other person hasn’t changed or isn’t likely to change, you can still forgive them in your heart, and then move on with your life – without ever communicating with them or inviting them back into it.
All that matters is the way you feel within yourself.
Forgiveness frees you from further suffering. It’s bad enough you suffered once. But if you don’t forgive, you don’t release the hurt or the anger, and so you continue to suffer.
Remember: Picking at old wounds keeps them raw.
It’s better for your emotional wellbeing. When you don’t forgive, you’re constantly revisited by the hurt, the anger and the desire to inflict pain and punishment on the other. This means, you could be feeling happy and content one minute, but angry and bitter the next. This will obviously destroy your happiness and peace of mind.
It’s better for your physical health. As with many things, scientific opinion seems to be divided on the matter, but there are indications that forgiveness can be beneficial to your health. And, at the very least, we could argue that forgiveness definitely reduces stress – the cause of so many illnesses.
It can help preserve important relationships. If we choose to sever ties with absolutely anyone and everyone who ever upset us, we might find it difficult to have any long-lasting relationships. We may get into a pattern of falling out with everyone, and live to regret it later on.
No man is an island and no relationship is likely to survive without forgiveness.
Most often, relationships grow strong and endure, not because the parties involved are perfect or infallible, but because they are more willing to forgive, and to overlook each other’s failings and weaknesses.
This is something that is less talked about, but still of great importance. Our relationships with ourselves are still relationships, and arguably, the most important ones we will ever have. They last a lifetime and are the ones that we’re most immersed in.
We may all do things that we come to regret later in life. We may disappoint ourselves and let ourselves down from time to time. But living with regret and disappointment serves no useful purpose. Yet these things are sure to rob us of our happiness.
So we must learn to forgive ourselves and move on. We can do what we can to put things right and make things better. But then, we must move on.
Learning How to Forgive
We’re all born knowing how to forgive. But then, as with any skill, we start to forget little by little – unless we practice.
But this means that anyone can pick it up again, and get better at it by doing it more often.
The act of forgiving requires that we (a) let go of the hurt and, (b) release the need for revenge and there are several things we can do towards making this happen:
Confronting the Situation
As part of our evolutionary process, we humans are wired to avoid discomfort. This often means that we are quick to pull the curtain over anything unpleasant, so we can return to being ‘operational’ as soon as possible.
What this often means is that we don’t allow ourselves to fully feel the emotions that the situation elicits.
Since we generally view feelings such as fear and pain as disempowering, we might try to move on to the more empowering feelings of anger and revenge as quickly as we can. But since feelings need to be felt in order to be released, the original feelings will still lie buried within. And here they’ll fester away, causing untold harm and damage.
When we take the time to revisit the situation (with a view to resolving it) by thinking and talking about it again, these feelings are likely to resurface. But now, we can take the time to experience them properly; and to express them, before letting them go.
If you suspect that the situation is going to be too painful or difficult for you to handle on your own, it might help to work with a counsellor; or a close friend or family member – someone who will be sympathetic, understanding and supportive.
Adopting A Spiritual Point of View
We often tend to view our lives and events from the limited perspective of our finite, ego personality. There is nothing bad or wrong in this (and one could even argue that this is indeed how things are meant to be). Nevertheless, doing so means that we often miss out on the ‘bigger picture’ and the many other reasons why things might have happened as they did.
This is why it is helpful to adopt, what I like to call ‘a spiritual point of view’.
Here, we acknowledge that we spiritual beings – more than just these bodies and minds – and that there are intelligent and benevolent forces guiding our lives. We can then start to understand that everything happens for a reason and is part of a Divine Plan. We can start to see the bigger picture.
If we learn to believe that everything happens for a reason, then, even though we don’t necessarily know the reason, we can at least acknowledge that there is one and expect to uncover it in time.
Looking for the Positive
There is never a good reason to suffer or cause another to suffer. But what happens, happens – we can’t go back and undo it. But we can still heal.
And, as hard as it might be, we can look for something positive to come out of the situation…
- Undergoing pain makes us stronger and more resilient. It allows us to be a source of hope, courage and inspiration to others.
- Knowing pain and learning to cope with it, teaches us compassion. It births in us a strong desire to help others deal with their pain. This may be why people who have endured trials and hardship often go on to become the greatest of healers.
- A difficult and traumatic event can often be a turning point in a person’s life – one that ultimately leads them to a better and happier life.
- In some spiritual traditions, it is even said that the people who bring us the most suffering are often our greatest teachers.
When we look at the situation from this point of view, it can help to reduce its severity, making it easier to bear and move on from.
This is not the easiest thing to do, but it’s still an option and one that’s very powerful.
To practice compassion in the context of forgiving means to acknowledge the fact that no one, including ourselves, is infallible. We all make mistakes and do and say hurtful things – even though we may not be ‘bad’ people. It might simply be that we’re having a bad day.
As the late author Louise Hay put it:
‘We’re all doing the best we can with the understanding, knowledge and awareness we have.’
And so, we can choose to let people off the hook a little more – and feel so much better in the process!
Acknowledging Our Role and Seeing the Other Person’s Side
I’m certainly not saying that anything that happened to you is your fault.
I just want to make the point that sometimes, we may knowingly or unknowingly contribute toward creating a problem or situation.
When we’re angry or upset about something, it is all too easy to focus on our own side of the story and forget all about the other person. So it is worth asking ourselves what role, if any, we may have played. This will make it easier for us to release our anger and the desire to inflict punishment on the other person.
How to Practice Forgiveness
Here are some practical tips to apply this idea and put it into practice:
Reach out to the other person. Call them or write to them. You don’t have to talk about what happened when you first make contact. The fact that you’re reaching out will tell them what they need to know – that you value the relationship and are willing to move on.
Write it down and destroy it. Write the person a letter. Say what you want to say to them. Then destroy what you wrote. Treat the act of destroying what you wrote as symbolic of the fact that you’re no longer holding on to any of the past or wishing them ill.
You can do the same thing to forgive yourself. Write it down and destroy it.
Do some ‘mirror work’. This is a powerful technique that was taught by the late Louise Hay. Stand before a mirror and tell yourself that you forgive yourself for whatever it may be.
Look into your eyes. Say it with emotion and mean it. Remind yourself that you were doing the best with what you knew at the time.
We may grow up believing that forgiveness is something we do for the other person, but this couldn’t be further from the truth: forgiveness is an act of self-love; a gift we give to ourselves.