When we’ve been hurt by someone, any or all of these thoughts can plague us.
We’re filled with (and tormented by) anger, resentment, tension, anguish, anxiety, and the desire for revenge, despair, The very notion that we can move forward seems impossible to us, much less the concept that one day we can forgive our offender.
However, withholding forgiveness may doom us to a life we do not wish to lead.
Continuing to fume about the pain we’ve endured can damage our physical, emotional, and mental health, negatively impact our present and future relationships, and impair our productivity at our jobs. In other words, by refusing to forgive, we can harm ourselves a great deal more than we ever could the person who hurt us.
Do you really want to live in this self-imposed prison? The Greek root of the word forgiveness means “to set free,” as in freeing a slave. Don’t you want to be set free from your vindictive thoughts, burning fury, energy-sapping depression, festering resentment, and frantic anxiety? Do you want to stop the incessant flow of adrenalin and cortisol from surging through your body, increasing your blood pressure, and promoting inflammation? Forgiveness is the path to such freedom. You alone hold the key to walking out of your own prison cell. But doing so is not easy and not for the faint of heart. Nor does forgiveness happen overnight. It is much more of a marathon than a sprint.
So, let’s clarify what forgiveness actually entails.
- A crucial part of forgiveness is the acknowledgment that something unfair happened and should not happen again. “Forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past”, as Lily Tomlin aptly noted. We need to accept that the unjust thing did occur – otherwise, there’s nothing to forgive. Forgiving doesn’t minimize the offense or indicate that it didn’t matter, that we weren’t hurt, that we somehow deserved it, or that we think the offender didn’t mean to hurt us.
- We usually need to accept our feelings (anger, hurt, vindictiveness) – without judgment- before we can begin to consider forgiveness. If we try to pretend that we’re not upset, those feelings are likely to crop up later on, may cause us to act in inappropriate ways, or eat away at our health. As Edward G. Bulwer-Lytton said, “Anger ventilated often hurries towards forgiveness; anger concealed often hardens into resentment”.
- Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we’ll put up with being mistreated again. Nor are we obligated to reconcile and reestablish a relationship with the person who hurt us.
- We can forgive someone and still hold them accountable for their actions. There may still be consequences for their behavior, such as their paying us back what they owe us, our not including them in as many (or any) social activities, or even (as mentioned above) our choosing not to have any contact with them at all in the future.
- Forgiveness involves relinquishing our right to harbor resentment toward our offender and our choosing compassion, regardless of whether our offender deserves empathy. Our intention here is to not let the experience impair our present and our future – our willingness to forgive is not a judgment call on the character or intentions of our offender. As T. D. Jakes, said, “Forgiveness is about empowering yourself, rather than empowering your past”.
- Weighing the pros and cons of how we’ve been trying to cope with the situation can help us make the decision whether to forgive (or not). Have our coping methods been effective? If so, how? If not, how have they gotten in our way? We may recognize that fuming, plotting revenge, seething in anger, drinking too much alcohol or abusing other substances, or overeating have damaged our health, relationships, performance at work, or shattered our nerves, which just add more suffering to our initial upset from the hurtful act. Realizing how we’ve been making matters worse may encourage us to consider a fresh perspective such as forgiveness.
- We can decide to forgive despite still feeling hurt and angry. “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart”, to quote Corrie Ten Boom. We can make this choice even if we don’t feel like doing so. It often happens that simply intending to forgive precedes feelings of forgiveness. We can use our rational mind to make this decision, allowing our heart to follow suit, in time.
- Forgiveness isn’t likely to happen overnight. Rather, forgiveness is usually a gradual process. We needn’t expect to quickly or suddenly have our pain erased or our attitude about our offender change. If our expectations about forgiveness are realistic, we can notice the progress we’ve made thus far and not judge ourselves if forgiveness is a bumpy road with some U-turns.
- Forgiveness is still an option if our offender doesn’t apologize or ask for forgiveness. Forgiveness is primarily for ourselves. To quote Maya Angelou, “It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, to forgive. Forgive everybody.”
- Forgiveness does not mean that we “forget” the offense. We do not erase what happened when we forgive. However, we do give up our obsessing about the matter. We may recall it now and then, but once we’ve chosen to forgive, we relinquish our obsessive thoughts. This process takes practice and usually gets easier as time goes on
- We may feel more pessimistic about life in general immediately after soon after the incident. However, this doesn’t have to be our permanent perspective. Often our view of the world will change in positive ways as we move through the steps of forgiveness.
- Forgiveness can be easier if we try to consider our offender as a person with many facets to their personality and with numerous factors that could have contributed to the wrong they committed against us. Could they have been experiencing anger, terror, or depression? Perhaps they were struggling with clinical depression or another mental health challenge. Maybe they were traumatized as a child (or adult). Not that any of these factors would excuse their behavior, but we can still attempt to look at how our offender’s past and present circumstances may have contributed to their acting in the way they did.
- We can contemplate how sometimes we’ve acted in ways that didn’t reflect our best self. Do we morbidly reflect on these times and cause ourselves misery? Have we done what we could to make amends? If so, did we then forgive ourselves and were able to move on, freed from self-condemnation? Can we see how through forgiving our offender a similar burden of resentment could be lifted for us?
- We can remember that we are facing a situation that many other people have faced, as we try to forgive. Most people have confronted situations in which they either forgave their offender or suffered from not doing so. We can look into support groups for people who’ve been through situations similar to what we’ve gone through. Often a spiritual or religious group, or strengthening our relationship to a Higher Power, however we conceive of that power, can offer us comfort, courage, and direction. We can consider people who were grievously and unjustly hurt and yet chose to forgive, and how it might benefit us to follow their lead.
- We can find meaning through what we’ve suffered. Once we accept that the injustice did occur, we can think about how our experience can help other people. Could we somehow support or advocate for others who have or are now going through similar injustices?
Since it’s common for the forgiveness process to involve going through a myriad of uncomfortable feelings prior to things getting better, it’s important that we take good care of ourselves.
We can replace unhealthy habits (like isolating ourselves from others, drinking too much, oversleeping, or overeating) with more constructive activities like getting together with good friends, gentle exercise like yoga or walking in nature, and watching or reading material that makes you laugh or inspires us.
We can think about what we tend to look forward to (or used to look forward to) and try to incorporate some of these items into our lives again. What activities give our spirits a lift? What motivates us to get out of bed in the morning? We can do our best to include some of these things in our daily routines. We can remember that we’ll be doing so for our general well-being and also as a means to concentrate on creating a fulfilling life now and in the future, rather than being preoccupied with what has already occurred. To quote Gerald Jampolsky, “Forgiveness means letting go of the past”. If you’re ready to do so, I hope that these tips will help you on your way.