Forgiveness has been on my mind for a while, now, so I started asking questions. I conducted research and found that many of my questions were not answered. What is forgiveness? What does forgiveness look like? What happens in the process of forgiving? I offer, in a nutshell, my experience, interpretation, and understanding of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the process of letting go of the need and desire for revenge, whatever form that may take. Forgiveness is neither neat and tidy nor precise. The stages of forgiveness and the steps of forgiving are good reference points. However, your process through forgiveness is unique to you and the situation you are facing. You may feel several emotions simultaneously and experience moving back and forth between stages. If the impact to your life is relatively minor, you may find forgiveness effortless and not think about it again as the adage “forgive and forget” urges you to do. When the blow is life-altering, forgiveness can be an arduous process spanning years or a lifetime, no matter how insignificant it appears to others.
Well-meaning people have cajoled or coerced grieving people into forgiving on their terms, rather than the griever’s. Watching someone wrangle with grief can be uncomfortable. They want you to become the person they knew before the experience. Or, they want to “keep the peace” in the family or relationship. Doing so before you are ready has the potential to increase anxiety, depression, resentment, anger, guilt, and shame. You may then engage in ineffective coping strategies and self-defeating behavior. You may push back with defiant anger as you set boundaries.
Grief is a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness. You must grieve your loss and be comforted by the peace of acceptance, a whole other issue. The event brought an abrupt change in your world. Life as you knew it or planned for it ceased. At the onset of grief, you experience excruciating numbness. When you are discouraged from or prevented from grieving, you are disempowered to act in your own behalf. Without the process of grief, recognition that your loss is real, and your emotions are real may be delayed or hindered.
Forgiveness is an enigma with several paradoxes. You let go of the blinding anger, but you still remember the experience. You let go of your need for revenge, but you can still hold the perpetrator accountable. You find peace from the searing emotional pain, but you still protect yourself, as much as possible, from further harm. You say, “I forgive,” and “never again,” in the same sentence. You allow yourself to feel and express your emotions without attachment to them. These paradoxes may make the way out of an emotional cloud into forgiveness bewildering. My recommendations for detangling the experience are:
- Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction© (MBSR)
- Medication, if necessary—see your primary care physician to rule out physical conditions or a psychiatrist
- Spiritual or religious practices
Remember forgiveness is a process that takes time. Be patient and gentle with yourself and your process as it unfolds. Take good care of yourself.
Several years ago, a series of adverse events happened in my life. For legal reasons, I could not discuss the main incident that triggered the chain reaction. The dominoes continued to fall for several years. My desire for revenge took the form of wanting a better life for myself than I had with the people involved. However, my life got worse as triggered events continued to happen. To this day, the devastating effects of that occurrence on my life reverberate through my existence. Clearly, I am still grieving.
You forgive for yourself as you traverse the path to healing and recovery. Forgiveness is a process of self-care. You cannot change the event, the person(s) involved, or how they will act in the future. You cannot know how they feel about the situation. You can change your attitude toward the person by deciding to not carry them with you any longer, even if the person does not apologize or take responsibility for the hurt caused by her or his behavior. You can write a new narrative of how you want to proceed with your life. You gain insight into who you have become because of the event, and what is unshakable in you despite the event.
Forgiveness is linked to an array of health benefits, mental as well as physical, including:
- Increasing happiness
- Improving heart rate and blood pressure
- Reducing stress
- Boosting energy
- Relieving depression and anxiety
- Strengthening relationships
- Resolving conflict
- Enhancing gratitude and kindness
The importance of forgiving yourself cannot be overlooked. Honest introspection when you have caused pain and suffering to others is vital to your well-being. Here are some tips for forgiving yourself:
- Practice self-compassion.
- Look for the root of your behavior without seeking an excuse.
- If you were influenced by someone else, take steps to distance yourself from the person or to draw firm boundaries for future interactions.
- Identify your value that you violated and why that value is important to you.
- If feasible and safe, go to the person and offer your sincere apology, and restitution if appropriate and possible.
- Develop a plan for similar situations in the future.
- Discuss your situation with a counselor or someone else you trust.
You may still be held accountable for your behavior and face consequences as a result of the fallout. However, you will have peace in knowing you have done your best to make amends.
I once betrayed the trust of a close friend. Over the years, we saw each other in grocery stores and chatted pleasantly. Guilt and shame gnawed at me, but I did not say anything. I grieved the loss of our friendship and her trust in me. A few months ago, I called her and offered my apology. She was gracious and we had a cordial conversation. As we talked, I made peace with my behavior and began the journey from grief into self-forgiveness. The consequences of my behavior were emotional pain, guilt, shame, and remorse.
The power of forgiveness can transform your life. Forgiveness does not require you to be a hero; follow your heart and honor your process. Wherever you are on the forgiveness continuum, know that compassion for yourself and others paves the way to acceptance, peace of mind, gratitude, and emotional freedom.
Peace and Joy to you.